Millet – an ancient but rejuvenated food

The millet group of plants, like rice and wheat, are grasses that produce small, edible seeds. Archaeologists have long known that they were domesticated very early in China and India; the earliest known noodles, which are 4000 years old and were reported by a Chinese team in 2005, were made of millet. Although rice was domesticated in China’s warm and humid south, millet was domesticated in the north of the country, where conditions were much colder and drier. Archaeological evidence suggests that millet was cultivated as long ago as the Xia Dynasty (21st – 17th century BC) and Shang Dynasty (1600 BC-1056 BC), primarily around the Yellow River basin, northeast China and Inner Mongolia. Yet archaeologists have debated whether these developments were independent or whether rice farmers from the south migrated north and began to cultivate wild millet–which grows much better than rice does in cold and dry conditions–thus transforming it into domesticated varieties.


Revolutionary food

Millet (xiaomi ‘small rice’ in Chinese) was the sustenance that Chairman Mao and the Red Army relied on to sustain them during the arduous campaigns against the Kuomintang and the invading Japanese.

Perhaps even more importantly, depending on how you look at it, millet was also one of the first grains used to brew liquor.

Millet itself retains some of the properties we might associate with the soldiers who relied on it back in 30s and 40s. While it prefers a warm climate, it possesses the ability to adapt to other environments, as well as being remarkably drought resistant and able to survive in poor, heavily acidic or alkaline soils. In short, it’s the kind of food you want to back you up in a tough situation.

Perhaps this is why, in some parts of northern China, it is also traditionally eaten by mothers after giving birth. The grain is mixed with brown sugar and boiled, providing a much needed nutritional boost for recovering mothers and their babies. For similar reasons, the elderly are also advised to gobble down a bowl of millet congee every day before going to bed, to provide energy and help get a good night’s rest. For the life in between these stages, traditional Chinese medicine teaches that millet will help nourish yin, remove humidity, strengthen the spleen and stimulate the appetite, as well as nurture the liver and help lift blood production.

Healthy grain

From the Western perspective, millet falls down when compared with other grains in terms of providing nutritional value, primarily because the nutrients it does contain are hard to digest. However, it is rich in calcium, phosphorous, iron, carotene, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, niacin, zinc, manganese, selenium and estrogen, amongst other things. Not bad for a grain that unlike rice does not even need to be refined before it is consumed.

Millet is currently being rejuvenated in China, as part of a revival of ‘coarse grains’. Obesity is a growing health problem in China and eating more coarse grains is regarded as one way to fight overweight.

There is also a nostalgic trend to revive ‘rural cuisines’ in China’s major cities. This is another opportunity for millet to return to the Chinese dinner tables.

Branded millet

A brand promotion meeting for Shanxi millet was held in Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi province, Feb 27, 2019. Nine companies were selected to be members of Shanxi Millet Industrial Alliance which is comprised of 28-member businesses attending the meeting. Several regional millet brands such as Changzhi millet, Yangquan millet, and Wangxiang millet, have been established in recent years, bringing greater economic benefits to local farmers. Apart from further expanding the market in Beijing, Shanxi will explore new markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen in 2019, according to Wang Yunlong, director of Shanxi Food and Strategic Reserves Administration. Promotion events for Shanxi millet will be organized in Shanghai and Guangdong province. Members of Shanxi Millet Industrial Alliance are encouraged to carry out marketing campaigns targeting senior residents, workers and students as well as develop supermarket counters and outlets selling millet.

Qinzhou Yellow Millet Group

Based in Qinzhou city, Shanxi province, is one of China’s leading millet processors. The company has signed a strategic alliance with Canada-based importer of Asian food Afod Ltd. in 2020. The first 200 mt batch of yellow millet was shipped to Canada within that year. The founder of Afod is a Canadian-Chinese, whose hometown is in Shanxi. Qingzhou Yellow Millet Group itself was established in the 1990s as a local flagship company in the processing and sales of the products. Shanxi is good for about 10% of the national millet output.


So what finished foods based on millet are available on the shelves of Chinese supermarkets? I will introduce a few.

Millet babao porridge

I already introduced babao porridge in one of my earlier posts. Millet can be used as the basic raw material instead of rice. In fact, porridge is the most typical way to eat millet in China. During the colder months, vendors selling millet porridge can be found on many street corners in Beijing.

Millet guoba


Another old acquaintance that can be made from millet is guoba. Sun brand guoba, the oldest branded guoba in China, is available in a millet version. The ingredients listed on the package are:

Millet, palm oil, rice, corn starch, salt, spices, msg

Millet glass noodles


Fensi, glass noodles are usually made from rice (and occasionally from lotus root meal), but again, millet can be used as raw material as well. The Chunsi brand glass noodles are market as ‘made from 100% course grains’.

Millet tortillas


With the word ‘tortillas’, I am simply following the English words on the package. We could also refer to this product as millet crackers. The picture shows the Shanbao brand of millet tortillas. The ingredients list reads as follows:

Millet flour, corn flour, vegetable oil, sugar, salt, additives (acesulfame-K, ethyl maltol)

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.


Formulated milk beverages in China

Even though dairy has been incorporated in several traditional regional cuisines, China is not known as a typical dairy nation. However, the industry has been developing rapidly during the previous decades, in spite of a number of food safety problems that have received global attention. The main reason is that Chinese, with support of the national government, strongly believe in the nutritional value of milk. Already in 2006, the prime minister stated that ideally every Chinese should drink one glass of milk per day.

China produced 32.31 million MT of raw milk in 2019. A little over 60% of this was used to produce drinking milk.

Still, a high volume of milk is consumed by the food industry. This is because, in spite of the healthy image of dairy, the average Chinese consumer still finds the taste of milk hard to appreciate.

Designer beverages

The combination of these facts, high nutrition + disagreeable taste, has created a very unique market segment in the Chinese dairy industry, including a broad variety of beverages with milk as their main ingredient, combined with a number of flavours and nutrients. We will refer to this product group as formulated milk beverages (FMB).

FMB can be further categorized in a number of ways. First of all there is the distinction between fermented and non-fermented beverages. Fermented FMB have a more sour taste and often contain probiotics.

Another subtype is what the Chinese industry refers to as ‘protein drinks’. These beverages used peanuts, almonds, soybeans, etc., as their main ingredients. They have a thicker texture than the average soft drink. A number of protein drinks combine milk with peanuts, red beans, or other of these protein ingredients, which makes them part of the scope of FMB.

These macro ingredients are usually supplemented with a number of other ingredients that can be divided in three main types:

  • Flavours: achieving the targeted flavour of the end product. Red bean milk will obviously contain red beans, but also needs a small amount of red bean flavour
  • Sweeteners: Chinese like their drinks sweet, so sugar is an ingredient in the bulk of FMB. However, with the growing awareness of the harm of excessive sugar intake, part or all sugar can be replaced by a combination of artificial sweeteners
  • Texturizers: texture is an essential aspect of FMB, and especially the protein beverages. Chinese consumers expect a creamy, thick, texture. Even Chinese who do regularly consumer plain fluid milk expect such a creamy mouth feel. Some Chinese ‘plain’ liquid milk products therefore contain small quantities of thickeners, to ensure that consumers do not suspect it to be diluted milk.
  • Nutrients: FMB are all marketed as nutritious products, healthier alternatives for the regular soft drinks. Milk, beans, fruits (e.g. dates; you will find a recipe in the linked blog), and vegetables already add to that nutritious impression, but special nutrients can be added as well. These include the regular vitamins and minerals, but also herbal extracts from traditional Chinese medicine, like Lingzhi fungus (Ganoderma).

Here is a representative example: Strawberry Flavoured Milk Drink

Produced by: Zhujiang (Pearl River) Beverage Company, Zhongshan, Guangdong



Main ingredients water, sugar, whole cream milk powder, strawberry juice
Sweeteners acesulfame‐K, sucralose
Flavour ingredients citric acid, strawberry flavour, monosodium glutamate
Other ingredients potassium sorbate, monascus colour

Many readers will doubt the nutritional value of a product like this, compared to simply drinking a glass of milk, which should be a lot cheaper as well. However, for the time being, this can be expected to be the mainstream in ‘dairy products’ in China.

Also see the dairy section in our item on cost price break down of several Chinese food and beverage groups.

New development: combination with probiotics, organic salt

Probiotics have become a pet ingredient in Chinese formulated dairy beverages. The total turnover in 2015 of probiotic milk drinks was RMB 11.98 billion, up 14.9% compared to 2014.

Huishan Dairy (Liaoning) has launched a new range of fermented dairy drinks with fruit and vegetable juice under the brand name Huawo. The company thus combines two major ‘healthy’ trends in the Chinese food industry: probiotics and natural juice, in one product.


Haocaitou (Fujian) has launched a dairy drink with probiotics and natural lake salt imported from Australia, that it markets as a sports beverage.


Also look at the Xiaoxixi vinegar milk with pineapple vinegar introduced in my post on new vinegar-based foods and beverages.

A special subtype in this category are the imitations of Yakult. This Japanese product is so successful worldwide, that a number of Chinese companies have not been able to resist the urge to launch similar products. A recent one in this category is Yili (Inner Mongolia), that launched its Meiyitian lactic acid drink early 2018.

Government support

A discussion has been going on in the Chinese media whether these beverages should be allowed to be marketed as dairy products. The government has supported the industry in this debate by officially allowing these drinks to use ‘XX milk’ a product names in October 2014. In this way, the producers are allowed to position their products with a healthy image.

The trend for 2018: healthier formulations

Three Chinese dairy companies are ending the year by launching healthy dairy specialties. It is hard to say if these launches are incidental, or that they are part of a concerted action. However, these beverages can be regarded as examples of the new generation of formulated milk drinks. These beverages are not only formulated to mask the less attractive flavours of milk, but also add several functional ingredients.

Mengniu: A2 beta-casein pure milk

A2 milk is cow’s milk that mostly lacks a form of beta-casein proteins called A1 and instead has mostly the A2 form. Milk like this was brought to market by New Zealand’s a2 Milk Company and is sold mostly in Australia, New Zealand, China, United States and the United Kingdom. Mengniu has selected 2000 cows from its Future Star (Weilaixing) Farm as designated producers of A2 beta-casein milk. It is marketed as a healthy milk for children.

Yili: Changqing (clearing bowels) flavoured fermented milk

The meaning of the product name speaks for itself

Ingredients: raw milk, oat fruit jam (³8%), crystal sugar, thin cream, concentrated milk protein, hydroxypropyl distarch phosphate, pectin, DATEM (diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono(di)glycerides), agar agar, lactococcus lactis, lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris, lactococcus lactis subsp. diacetyl, streptococcus thermophiles, lactobacillus plantarum, lactobacillus rhamnosus.

Kedi: Soy milk milk

The English translation is rather unfortunate. The Chinese name, Doujiang niunai, literally means ‘soy sauce cow milk’, but soy sauce refers to a different product in English, and our default milk is cow milk, so we usually leave the ‘cow’ unmentioned, while we speak of ‘soy milk’, due to the colour of the liquid. Anyway, it is a combination of milk and (non-GMO) soy milk powder. In Kedi’s own words, it is the best of both.

UniPresident, non-dairy specialist has launched a Papaya Milk in March 2018

Foreign competitors enter the market

Saigon Dairy Factory (Vinamilk) has obtained the code from the Chinese General Administration of Customs on July 17, 2020, which allows the plant to export flavoured fermented milk to the Chinese market.

Also see my post on individualisation in Chinese food marketing.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.