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Millets are highly nutritious, but vastly ignored as a main source of food, primarily due to lack of awareness. You’ve heard of “ancient grains”? Millets ain’t messin’ around, arguably the ﬁrst grains cultivated by humankind––not just dating back 5,000 years, but maybe 10,000 years.
Why the plural, millets? Talk about lack of awareness! I had no idea that millet wasn’t the name of a specific grain. Millet is just a generic term that doesn’t just apply to a bunch of different species, but to a bunch of totally different plants. There are so-called major and minor millets. There’s pearl millet, which is what I think most people think of as millet, but then there are proso, foxtail, and finger millets, which are all completely different grains. They look similar, but they’re not the same.
Fiber is one of the main things we’re looking for in a whole grain, and kodo millet is like off the charts. But compared to other grains, finger and foxtail millet also beat out the bunch, though note that what most people think of as millet is really on the low side. But looking at the polyphenol content, even plain millet beats out the other grains, including sorghum, which I previously hyped for its polyphenol content. But again, kodo millet seems to win the day. Total antioxidant-wise, though, kodo and finger millet are comparably high.
Nutrition-wise, finger millet is said to have eight times more calcium than other grains, but it looks to me more like ten times more, just off the charts, and three times as much calcium as milk. Some of the millets are exceptionally high in iron as well. Regular millet is high, but barnyard millet has like five times more iron than steak.
Okay, so it’s nutritious, but what about specific potential health beneﬁts? In the medical literature, you’ll read things like this: Millets may prevent cardiovascular disease by reducing triglycerides in hyperlipidemic rats. Who cares (other than perhaps pet owners) whether a food reduces cardiovascular disease in rodents?
There was that epidemiological study in China that found lower esophageal cancer mortality rates in areas that ate more millet and sorghum, compared to corn and wheat––but that may have been more due to avoiding a contaminating carcinogenic fungus than from benefit in the millet itself. Studies show millets may be effective against cancer cell proliferation, in a petri dish, with kodo and proso millet rapidly inhibiting cancer cell growth compared to pearl or foxtail millet, knocking down the growth of cancer cells, but leaving normal cells alone. And also, millets reducing the growth of colon cancer cells as well as human breast cancer and human liver cancer cells, potentially also helping to prevent metastases by inhibiting cancer cell migration. My patients are neither pets nor petri dishes, though, and to date, there have been no clinical cancer trials with millet.
Are there any unique health-promoting attributes? Finger millet is supposedly known for its health benefits, such as blood sugar-lowering, cholesterol-lowering, and anti-ulcer characteristics. But the anti-ulcer study they cite just noted that some of the areas with a low incidence of ulcers also happened to be eating millet. But that’s far from establishing cause-and-effect. And the cholesterol-lowering study they cite? It explored what happens when you take tail tendons from rats and soak them in sugar and millet. What?! But the blood-sugar lowering benefits are legit. Apart from the fact that millets don’t contain gluten, which is good for the 1 or 2 percent of people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, millets can also be exploited in the management of type 2 diabetes due to their blood sugar lowering properties, as reported by several studies on millets and millet-based foods in actual people, which we’ll cover next.
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