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Four millets: Recognizing the differences

Millet” can actually refer to any one of several related but distinct kinds of grains, though you wouldn’t know it seeing the term in lists of ingredients, statistics on crop production and trade, or some articles about food and nutrition (for example, this otherwise nice article on FoodTank.org). The good news is that (1) each of these grains – each of these diverse millets – has its own character as a food, and (2) as crops, they are are adapted to a range of drought and soil conditions we will face in the wake of climate change.

So maybe it’s time to stop lumping these grains together as if “millet” were one thing, or marketing one or another type of millet as just “millet,” as we often do in the US, so as to better educate about, and take advantage of, their diversity.

A picture of the grains of these 4 millets from an article in Straits Times follows. For more pictures of the 4 millets, the Whole Grains Council site has a page with some photos.

4 millets

1) Pearl, 2) Proso. 3) Finger, 4) Foxtail.
Image adapted from StraitsTimes.com

As an encouragement to get specific about types of millet, I will profile the four main types in terms of annual production worldwide, in a series of posts on this blog, plus an additional post on other less-widely cultivated millets and the “millet spectrum.” In order of production, the four main millets would be listed as pearl millet, foxtail millet, proso millet, and finger millet. They are important as foods in much of the world, but also grown in some places (like the US) for forage or birdseed.

In the four posts to follow this one, I will first list the two tropical millets which are least known in the West – pearl and finger. We might also call these “Afro-Indian” millets based on their origin and regions of highest production. In my experience in Africa and using flour of these two millets from Indian markets in the US, these millets are used in a range of sweet and savory foods, generally after being milled to flour or cracked, as well as in making alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

Then I list the two that are better known in more temperate regions – foxtail and proso (although foxtail ranges down to South Asia). We might call these “Eurasian” millets, again based on their origins and history. From personal experience in China and the US, these small millets are typically cooked whole, such as in soups or porridges.

None of these grains are limited in how they can be prepared and eaten, but their nutritional profiles are not the same, and I find they have different flavors.

And as crops they also have differences, although millets in general can deal with less than optimal growing conditions, and produce with low inputs. The downside is that their maximum production is not comparable to corn, wheat, or rice.

Pearl millet, for instance, produces in the hot semi-arid Sahel, even on poor soils. According to ICRISAT, this grain “has immense potential for adaptation to the extreme limits of agriculture.” The other “Afro-Indian” millet in our group of four – finger millet is also adaptable crop, though mainly grown in higher altitudes. The two “Eurasian” millets in the group also produce in varied conditions.

A big part of promoting cultivation and consumption of these grains, which are masked under the catchall name “millet,” in regions where they are not widely known like North America, will be educating consumers and farmers about their different character as foods and crops. And a step to succeeding in that, would be policies to distinguish among the millets in food labeling and agricultural statistics.

Towards that end, I will highlight a non-English name as an alternative reference for 3 of the group of 4 – the exception being proso (itself a name of Slavic origin) – with the thoughts that (1) using loan words might help us avoid always lumping all millets together, and (2) the English names are easily confused (especially as there are usually several for each type). Crossed word images for the suggested names are also provided as an aide-mémoire. Two of the names are from India, and one from China: pearl millet as bajri (or bajra); finger millet as ragi; and foxtail millet as xiaomi.

Millet crossword aide-mémoires

Following this post, there will be one post on each of the four main millets, then one more on less-widely cultivated millets and the “millet spectrum.” The next posts in this series are:

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1 Comment

  1. […] millet (Pennisetum glaucum) is the first if the four millets to be described in this series of posts. It is the most widely cultivated of the millets and the sixth most important grain worldwide. […]

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