Saturday, June 20, 2009

Pet food ingredients de-mystified: Millet, a very old food

Millet is one of the oldest foods known to humans and possibly the first cereal grain to be used for domestic purposes. It is mentioned in the Bible, and was used during those times to make bread. Millet has been used in Africa and India as a staple food for thousands of years and it was grown as early as 2700 BC in China where it was the prevalent grain before rice became the dominant staple. It is documented that the plant was also grown by the lake dwellers of Switzerland during the Stone Age.

Today millet ranks as the sixth most important grain in the world, sustains 1/3 of the world’s population and is a significant part of the diet in northern China, Japan, Manchuria and various areas of the former Soviet Union, Africa, India, and Egypt.

Millet is a major crop in many of these countries, particularly Africa and the Indian sub continent where the crop covers almost 100 million acres, and thrives in the hot dry climates that are not conducive to growing other grains such as wheat and rice.

The Hunzas, who live in a remote area of the Himalayan foothills and are known for their excellent health and longevity also enjoy millet as a staple in their diet.

Millet is used in various cultures in many diverse ways: The Hunza’s use millet as a cereal, in soups, and for making dense, whole grain bread called chapatti.

In India, flat thin cakes called roti are often made from millet flour and used as the basis for meals.

In Eastern Europe, millet is used in porridge and kasha, or is fermented into a beverage and in Africa it is used to make bread, as baby food, and as uji, a thin gruel used as breakfast porridge. It is also used as a stuffing ingredient for cabbage rolls in some countries.

Millet was introduced to the U.S. in 1875, was grown and consumed by the early colonists like corn, then fell into obscurity. At the present time, the grain is widely known in the U.S. and other Western countries mainly as bird and cattle feed. Only in recent years has it begun to make a comeback and is now becoming a more commonly consumed grain in the Western part of the world.

The plant is now grown in the U.S. on 200,000 acres in Colorado, North Dakota, and Nebraska, but much of the crop is still used for livestock, poultry, and bird feed. It is remarkable that despite the grain being an ancient food, research on millet and its food value is in its infancy and its potential vastly untapped.

Research results so far are promising, showing the grain to have great aptitude and versatility and more and more uses for millet are being discovered every year, including its potential benefits in the American diet. Millet is superior feed for poultry, swine, fish, and livestock and, as it is being proven, for humans as well.

Millet is related to sorghum, which is used to make the thick dark sweetener, sorghum syrup. Discrepancies exist concerning exactly what family millet actually belongs to, with some references giving the family name as Gramineae, and others claiming it is in the family Poaceae. There are many varieties of millet, but the four major types are Pearl, which comprises 40% of the world production, Foxtail, Proso, and Finger Millet. Pearl Millet produces the largest seeds and is the variety most commonly used for human consumption.

Millet is a tall erect annual grass with an appearance strikingly similar to maize. The plants will vary somewhat in appearance and size, depending on variety, and can grow anywhere from one to 15 feet tall. Generally the plants have coarse stems, growing in dense clumps and the leaves are grass like, numerous and slender, measuring about an inch wide and up to more than 6 feet long.

The seeds are enclosed in colored hulls, with color depending on variety, and the seed heads themselves are held above the grassy plant on a spike like panicle 6 to 14 inches long and are extremely attractive. Because of a remarkably hard, indigestible hull, this grain must be hulled before it can be used for human consumption. Hulling does not affect the nutrient value, as the germ stays intact through this process.

Once out of the hull, millet grains look like tiny yellow spheres with a dot on one side where it was attached to the stem. This gives the seeds an appearance similar to tiny, pale yellow beads. Millet is unique due to its short growing season. It can develop from a planted seed to a mature, ready to harvest plant in as little as 65 days. This is an important consideration for areas where food is needed for many.

Millet grows well on poorly fertilized and dry soils and fits well in hot climates with short rainfall periods and cool climates with brief warm summers. The plants need good drainage, have a low moisture requirement and do not do well in waterlogged soils.

Millet is highly nutritious, non glutinous and like buckwheat and quinoa, is not an acid forming food so is soothing and easy to digest. In fact, it is considered to be one of the least allergenic and most digestible grains available and it is a warming grain so will help to heat the body in cold or rainy seasons and climates.

Millet is tasty, with a mildly sweet, nut like flavor and contains a myriad of beneficial nutrients. It is nearly 15% protein, contains high amounts of fiber, B-complex vitamins including niacin, thiamin, and riboflavin, the essential amino acid methionine, lecithin, and some vitamin E. It is particularly high in the minerals iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium.

The seeds are also rich in phytochemicals, including Phytic acid, which is believed to lower cholesterol, and Phytate, which is associated with reduced cancer risk.

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