Health Benefits of Millet (A Gluten-Free Grain from India)
Pearl millet, botanically known as Pennisetum glaucum, is a gluten-free cereal crop that has been grown in Africa and India since prehistoric times. The seeds of the plant, the grains, are small, round and golden yellow in color. The red millet grains you sometimes see in the health food stores are not seeds of the Pennisetum glaucum plant but of Eleusine coracana), a related species that is better known as finger millet or ragi.
In this article we focus on the nutritional and health benefits of pearl millet, the most common millet variety in the world. But before we look at why millet is so good for you, let's take a quick look at what you can do with this naturally gluten-free grain.
What to Do with Millet?
Pearl millet, also known as common millet, is an extremely versatile ingredient. It can be used in everything from breakfast porridges and polenta to flat breads and even desserts. Adding millet grains to soups and stews is also a wonderful way to thicken these dishes (add the grains to the soup or stew 20 to 25 minutes before you expect the dish to be ready).
Gluten-Free Source of Minerals and B Vitamins
With over 600 million tons of wheat produced every year, wheat is one of the most popular cereals in the world (along with rice and corn). For many people, whole grain wheat is also a major source of B vitamins and minerals like iron, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, zinc and copper. But wheat also contains gluten, a protein composite that can cause gastrointestinal problems such as bloating, flatulence and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Millet, by contrast, is inherently gluten-free, and provided that you buy millet that has not been cross-contaminated with gluten-containing grains during processing, you can safely use millet as a gluten-free substitute for wheat, rye and other grains that contain gluten. But the absence of gluten is hardly the only reason why millet makes such a great substitute for whole grain wheat. You see, this ancient grain also contains many B vitamins as well as essential minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, manganese, potassium, copper, zinc and chromium. A revealing study published in the journal Food Chemistry in 2006 analyzed the mineral content of six cereal grains – hard wheat, soft wheat, barley, rye, sorghum and millet – and found that, among the tested grains:
- Millet had the highest levels of potassium, calcium and iron
- Millet was second only to barley in terms of magnesium and zinc content
- Millet was the only grain that contained significant levels of chromium
Pearl Millet Towers Over Other Millets in Terms of Protein Content
Looking for a plant-based source of protein? Consider adding pearl millet to your diet! According to the Handbook of Cereal Science and Technology (available from Amazon here), pearl millet contains on average around 14.5% protein, which makes it the best source of protein among common millet varieties (teff and finger millet, or red millet, were reported to have the lowest levels). Note, however, that millet is not considered a complete protein as it does not contain substantial amounts of the amino acid lysine. That said, eating millet together with lysine-rich foods such as beans, cheese, tofu or eggs will turn your overall meal into a source of complete protein.
The same study that investigated the mineral composition of millet and the five other grains also assessed the in-vitro antioxidant capacity of these grains, both in terms of DPPH scavenging and ABTS scavenging capacity. In both tests (DPPH and ABTS), millet was second only to rye in terms of antioxidant capacity. As you may already know, antioxidants gobble up free radicals which in turn are highly reactive molecules that can cause damage to your body at the cellular level. The free radical damage within cells has been linked to many diseases and disorders, including cancer, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.
Word of Warning: Millet Contains Goitrogens
Above, we have focused on the potential health benefits of millet, but if eaten in excess, this otherwise-healthy food may also cause some problems. This is because millet contains goitrogens, anti-nutrients that can suppress thyroid activity and cause goiter, an enlargement of the thyroid gland that often produces a noticeable swelling in the front of the neck.
The Bottom-Line: Eat Millet – But in Moderation!
As explained above, excessive regular consumption of millet can harm your thyroid gland in the long term, and even lead to goiter. At the same time, millet is a nutritious food with many potential health benefits. So, what's the takeaway? Eat millet – but in moderation! If you're following a gluten-free diet, you should rotate your gluten-free grains the same way you should rotate your vegetables to keep your diet varied.