What is Foxtail Millet?

By Shelley Moore

Foxtail millet is a gluten-free grain which is the oldest cultivated millet. Millet has been a food staple in parts of the eastern hemisphere for thousands of years, but only recently has been gaining in popularity in Europe and North America. Botanists study foxtail millet in agriculture because of its ability to thrive in hot dry climates.


Millet is an annual grass grown for cereal grains, hay for animals and seeds for bird feed. It is one of the oldest foods known. Foxtail millet is the second most cultivated millet in total world production of the approximately 6,000 varieties, and the most important millet in East Asia. The most widely-grown type is pearl millet, which accounts for 40 percent of world production. Millet is an important food staple in northern Africa and parts of Asia such as northern China, because it grows well in hot dry climates where wheat, rice, and barley do not.


Millet grains are small and round, with a mild sweet and nutty taste. In North America and Europe, millet still is mostly grown for cattle and bird feed, but is gaining in acceptance as people seek gluten-free alternatives and healthier diets. It is high in the B vitamins as well as iron, manganese, phosphorus, and tryptophan.


The earliest evidence of foxtail millet cultivation is from about 8,000 years ago in China. It did not appear much further afield until about 600 B.C., where scientists have found indications of foxtail millet in Turkey.


International Development Research Centre botanists are studying foxtail millet in India, because of its importance to people farming on land that is not suitable for other cereal crops. These scientists are working on plant breeding to increase millet production. Japanese researchers publishing in the September 2005 issue of Molecular Genetics and Genomics conducted research on foxtail millet in regard to the origin of waxy-type cereals in Asia, and the evolution of their genetic structure.


Millet can be ground into flour to bake into flatbread, although because it is gluten-free, millet will not work for raised breads on its own. It adds a nutty flavor, crunchy texture, and extra nutrition when combined in breads with wheat flour, and adding sunflower seeds along with millet is a popular variation. Millet can be a good substitute for buckwheat, rice, or quinoa in certain recipes.

Called korra annam by people of India, the grain was used in traditional Indian dishes such as foxtail millet porridge.