Millets: The Forgotten Grains

August 18, 2020

One of the oldest foods known to mankind, millets were the first cereal grains that were consumed by human beings. Cultivated in East Asia as many as 10,000 years ago, this drought-resistant grain is more widely eaten than even rice.
Millets are a group of small-seeded grasses, widely grown around the world as cereal crops/ grains. They are tiny in size and round in shape and can be white, gray, yellow or red. These foods are packed with many essential nutrients.

The main distinguishing characteristic of millets is that they don't contain the protein called “Gluten” which makes them excellent choices for people who have a hard time digesting gluten-containing grains like wheat, rye & barley.
Their protein structure is quite similar to wheat, making them a great gluten-free substitute.

Types of millets

Following are the millets that are typically grown in India:

  1. Pearl (aka Bajra):

India is the highest producer of pearl millet or Bajra. It is super high in protein, fuels you up, and is great for rotis. It’s also eaten sprouted and in porridges. Pearl millet is a rich source of phosphorus, which plays an important part in the structure of body cells. Consumption of pearl millets helps in minimizing the risk of type 2 diabetes. Being a good source of magnesium, millets act as a cofactor in a number of enzymatic reactions.

  1. Kodo:

Kodo millets contain high amounts of polyphenols, an antioxidant compound, they also are high on fibre and low on fat. It is ideal for diabetics, and can be substituted for rice.

  1. Little Millet:

Little Millet seeds are smaller than other millets. They are also high in Iron content, high in fibre like Kodo and have high antioxidant activity. It helps with diabetes and stomach diseases.

  1. Finger Millet (aka Ragi):

Finger millet has the highest calcium content and is a staple food in Karnataka in the form of muddes. It is rich in calcium and protein and also has a good amount of iron and other minerals. Ragi tops in antioxidant activity among common Indian foods, Ragi also has some good number of Essential Amino Acids (EAA) which are essential for the human body.

  1. Foxtail:

With the highest mineral content of all millets, foxtail millet is justifiably the second most produced in the world. Foxtails not only do not need any fumigants but act as anti-pest agents to store delicate pulses such as green gram. They also control blood sugar and cholesterol levels & increase HDL cholesterol.

  1. Barnyard:

Barnyard millet has the highest fiber and iron content amongst its fellow millets and also grows faster.

  1. Sorghum (aka Jowar):

The hardy grain that’s consumed all over India as rotis and porridges, thanks to its high protein + carb + energy composition.

  1. Proso:

Proso has the highest protein content and is quite high in carbs as well. Of the millets, we’d recommend this only when you’re working out strenuously or trying to build muscle.

Health Benefits of Millets:

  1. Protects Heart Health:

Researchers from the University of Kentucky have shown a link between whole grains and the prevention of heart disease risk. It is a rich source of magnesium, which is an important mineral for reducing blood pressure and the risk of heart attack or stroke, particularly in the case of atherosclerosis.

  1. Aids in Digestion:

Millet can help move your gastrointestinal system by eliminating problems like constipation, excess gas, bloating, and cramping.

  1. Diabetes Management:

Millet is a gluten-free whole grain. It is a good source of fiber and has a low glycemic index which has a positive effect against diabetes. Apart from these obvious benefits, a study published in the Frontiers in Plant Science journal also cites millets as a suitable dietary component to combat the growing prevalence of diabetes worldwide.

  1. Rich in Antioxidants:

Millets are a rich source of phenols and antioxidants like quercetin, curcumin, ellagic acid, and various other beneficial catechins which can help rid your system of any foreign agents and toxins by promoting proper excretion and neutralizing enzymatic activity in certain organs.

  1. Helps to Prevent Asthma Symptoms

According to research published by the Indian Institute of Millets Research, it can be helpful for people suffering from asthma. The paper suggests that the high levels of magnesium in pearl millets can help alleviate respiratory issues in asthma patients while also reducing migraines.

What can you make with millets?

Everything. Anything. Just substitute them for grains and also come up with new ways of using them. Their higher nutritional value makes every dish much more filling and better for you. From idlis, dosas and upma to khichdi, pulao/biriyani and kheer/payasam, millets are the most versatile ingredients you can ever use.

Anti-Nutrients present in millets:

Millets are staple foods in most parts of India. They have naturally occurring anti-nutritional factors such as phytic acid that decrease their dietary mineral availability. The levels are higher in sorghum & finger millet. A research conducted on “effects of fermentation on phytic acid content of millets” showed soaking & fermenting them for 72-96 hours significantly reduced (around 40-70%) phytic acid levels. The extent of decrease of phytic acid differed among the millet varieties. Fermentation, too, increases the rate of available iron, manganese, & calcium from both sorghum and finger millet.

iThrive’s take on Millets:

We have used millets in rice to cakes almost in all things, it goes very well as a gluten-free substitute. It has helped a lot of our clients to go gluten-free and add a variety in the diet. They provide a lot of benefits as discussed below but we need to keep on rotating them in order to get a variety of nutrients in the diet. However, one needs to limit the use of millets because of the anti-nutrients present in them.

Word of Caution: Given the modern stresses on our body, particularly to our glandular system, the excessive work needed to digest and process millet may be damaging. Consider speaking to your health coach about your glandular and thyroid health before making a major shift to a diet that includes millet. If you don't have a health coach then hire one so they can guide towards your journey of health.


Suyash Bhandari
Functional Nutritionist

Suyash has a Master's in Food Science and Nutrition, is a certified sports and clinical nutritionist, a certified nutrigenomics counsellor and a certified holistic lifestyle coach. His ability to teach his patients about their mind-body connection and the root causes of their health problems makes him a key member of team iThrive (Previously ThriveFNC).

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