Untapped Variety in Whole Grains

Dr. Mark Anthony shows us what we're missing in those amber waves of grain when we limit our thinking to wheat, corn, and oats.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

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Often when I want to demonstrate to my students that variety is a principle of sound nutrition, I bring out a couple of dozen jars of whole grains. I ask my students to name the contents and tell how many of the various grains they have used. I rarely find anyone who recognizes more than a couple — maybe rice and wheat. But with whole grains getting more attention, maybe we should play this little game. I’ll start with the grains I find the most interesting.

Quinoa (pronounced keen-WHA) is not a true cereal grain but a member of a family of herbs native to the Andes Mountains in South America. These diminutive, round off-white seeds always arouse curiosity. They were a staple in the diet of the Incas who called it the “mother grain.” Quinoa is a rich source of vegetable protein, containing all of the essential amino acids. It’s also is high in iron and calcium. It cooks up fast, usually in 20 minutes, and makes a wonderful salad grain.

Millet is an ancient grain first cultivated in Asia 8,000 years ago. It looks very much like quinoa. In fact, it’s hard to tell them apart, since they are about the same size. It’s only the slight golden color that gives millet away. Today millet is still grown in India, China, Korea, and Japan. It’s mainly used in porridges, soups, and grain salads. It can also be milled into flour and used to make flatbreads. Millet has more protein than rice and is rich in vitamin A, iron, calcium, manganese, and many of the B vitamins.

Buckwheat, also called kasha, is technically a fruit unrelated to wheat. It’s an alternative “grain” for many who are allergic to wheat’s high gluten content. These small pyramid-shaped starchy nuggets originated in Eastern Europe and are a staple ingredient in the traditional dishes of Finland, Northern Italy, and Russia. Buckwheat is another good source of plant protein that contains all eight essential amino acids. It’s high in B vitamins, phosphorus, potassium, iron, and calcium, as well as fiber. It can be used like rice in salads, pilafs, and stews.

Wild rice is something many people recognize but few use regularly. Wild rice, a long, jet-black grain, is actually the seed of a marsh grass indigenous to the Great Lakes area. Native Americans gathered it by the canoe-ful as they paddled through the wetlands on which this valuable source of energy thrived. This very ancient grass seed makes a great addition to soups and stews. It contains a significant amount of zinc in addition to a list of B vitamins and minerals including iron, phosphorous, potassium, and fiber. It’s great source of gluten-free protein.

Another grain that gets the “what?” response is amaranth. This tiny beige grain is about half the size of quinoa. This ancient food was first used by prehistoric cave dwellers 8000 years BCE. It later was a staple in the diets of the pre-Columbian Aztecs, who believed it to be a grain with supernatural powers. Amaranth is rich in the amino acids lysine and methionine, which tend to be low in many grains. Small grains tend to be rich in vitamins, calcium, iron because they have a high proportion of germ and bran, the nutritionally rich parts of the seed. Cooked with raisins, and with the addition of a few nuts, amaranth makes a satisfying breakfast.

By far the grain that garners the most surprised looks is teff. Giving the appearance of dark sand, teff is the tiniest grain in the world. Three thousand teff grains weigh a total of only one gram. That’s 1/150th the size of a grain of wheat. Teff is so small it can’t be milled, and is therefore is always used in its whole grain form.

Teff’s diminutive size means the germ and bran make up a higher portion of the seed than in any other grain. That accounts for its nutrient power. Teff is a naturally rich source of iron, calcium, and grain protein. Small wonder it’s the staple food of the legendary marathon runners from Ethiopia, where teff is a native food. A full nutritional analysis of teff is not available since it’s such a new addition to the American food supply. However, there is no question it will turn out to be a rich source of B vitamins and other vital nutrients inherent in the germ of whole grains.

In contrast to the diminutive teff is kamut. Kamut is an ancient relative of durum wheat originally cultivated in the Fertile Crescent about 4,000 years ago. It is twice the size of common wheat and has 20 to 40% more protein. This giant grain is higher in B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, zinc, iron and lipids than wheat. Kamut contains gluten, though significantly less gluten than common wheat.

There other more common grains few people know or use today. Barley is one that many people in America know, but rarely recognize or use. Barley may have been domesticated around 10,000 years ago. The remains of this wheat relative have been found at archaeological sites in the Fertile Crescent. Barley was the favorite grain of the Egyptians, Roman gladiators, and the Vikings. Christopher Columbus brought barley to North America. Today, Canada produces the majority of the world’s barley. Whole barley has the intact bran and is the most nutritious. However, pearled barley, which has been steamed and polished, is the one we find most in soup mixes.

What’s the point of this little exercise? Variety in grains is more than molding flour into different shapes and giving the end products cute names. True variety gives you a better shot at balance. With that comes strength, energy, and hunger satisfaction.

Dr. Mark Anthony, retired University of Texas at Austin nutrition scientist, is author of Gut Instinct: Diet’s Missing Link. To contact Dr. Anthony, visit his website, www.dietsmissinglink.com
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