The Forgotten Whole Grains

One of the great benefits of being WFPB is the VARIETY of foods we eat!  Literally we can eat something different every day of the year. But like many others, we can fall into a rut, eating the same things over and over again on a regular basis.

One easy way to get out of our rut is to expand the variety of grains we eat. Grains are often interchangeable in recipes (more than just brown rice can be used for our Asian dishes).  Grains can be included in casseroles, made into a hot breakfast cereal, included in the main entrée, and even in a dessert. Depending on the grain, whole grains cook in as little as 5 minutes or up to 55 minutes.

Grains have a rich history. They originate from places like Africa, Asia, and Mexico. They have been eaten for thousands of years and were among the first cultivated crops.  When you think about it, when we eat grains, we are eating the same foods civilizations ate thousands of years ago. That’s amazing!

All whole grains consist of three main parts – the bran which is an outer shell that protects the grain and provides insoluble fiber, minerals, protein, and B vitamins, the endosperm which contains carbohydrates, protein, iron, and soluble fiber, and the germ which contains nutrients for the grain to grow, vitamins B and E, antioxidants, and healthy fats.  Grains are a real powerhouse!  Many nutrients and much of the fiber are lost, however, when the bran and germ are removed when grains are processed.

Let’s talk about a few less familiar grains. Many of you WFPB peeps are familiar with brown rice, but did you know there are over 8,000 varieties of rice? We will mention just a few here – brown basmati rice and black rice. Brown basmati is a fluffy rice that is delicious in salads, pilafs, and more. It has a lower glycemic index than many other kinds of rice. Basmati means “fragrant” in Hindi for good reason. When cooking it, your house will be filled with a wonderful nutty aroma. Although it is commonly used in Indian and Pakistani food, brown basmati rice can be used in place of any rice.

In ancient times, black rice was called “forbidden rice” because this precious grain was forbidden to all but Chinese royalty. Fortunately, it is available to all today.  With over 23 antioxidants, including carotenoids and flavonoids, it can protect our cells from oxidative damage.[i] You may be familiar with one of its flavonoids, anthocyanin.  It gives this rice its black/purple color and is also found in blueberries, beets, red cabbage, and red grapes.

Another grain that may be unfamiliar to many is amaranth. It is classified as a pseudocereal because it is not technically a grain, but a seed. It was a staple food for the Aztecs and Native Americans.  Amaranth is a complete protein and is a very good source of vitamins A and C as well as minerals iron, calcium, manganese, and potassium. It is low on the glycemic index and is gluten-free.  It can be cooked as a breakfast cereal, can be used in place of polenta, and can be included in a variety of pilafs.  Amaranth has an earthy nutty flavor. Add nuts, raisins, cinnamon, and grated ginger to cooked amaranth for a delightful stuffing for winter squash.

Teff is another pseudo cereal. It is a staple in Ethiopia where it is made into a fermented flatbread called injera. The word teff translated in Amharic means “lost” because the grain is so tiny – about the size of a poppy seed. If you are looking for a nutritional powerhouse, look no further! “It has high levels of magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, choline, vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B6, thiamin, pantothenic acid, and riboflavin”[ii]. If you equate protein with quinoa, don’t forget teff.  Teff is in tight competition with quinoa – 13.3 grams of protein in 1/2 cup dry teff vs 14.1 grams of protein in 1/2 cup of dry quinoa[iii].  At 123mg per cup, teff’s calcium content is comparable to that of spinach and is gluten-free[iv]. Break the fast with teff for breakfast. As a hot cereal, it has the consistency of cream of wheat. Waffles and crepes can be made with teff flour. The flour is often combined with other flours to make brownies, breads, and other baked goods.

Sorghum is my most recent find. I love this grain for its versatility! It is a drought-resistant grain and is a vital crop in areas of the world that get little rain. I sometimes substitute sorghum for rice in Asian dishes. It is also a great substitute in dishes that contain bulgar, barley, or couscous.  I could not find sorghum in the supermarket where I shop, so I ordered it online.  It is a good source of iron and magnesium and is gluten-free. Sorghum is high in antioxidants and can lower inflammation and oxidative stress in your body.[v]

Buckwheat is a hearty, earthy flavored gluten-free pseudo-cereal and is from the sorrel and rhubarb family.  Buckwheat groats are a hulled grain that can be cooked to make porridge or used as a rice substitute. When toasted, it is known as kasha. Combined with bowtie pasta, sautéed onions, and garlic it is a staple dish in Russia. Buckwheat is more often ground into flour.  The French make crepes with it and fill them with sautéed mushrooms, jam, or yam puree. Japanese make soba noodles with buckwheat flour. Warm up the griddle and make buckwheat pancakes. Ukrainians make a buckwheat yeast roll called hrechanyky.

Millet is another relatively unknown grain originating from North Africa. It has many health promoting properties, It is anti-microbial and is high in antioxidants. It ranks highest in calcium of all grains, with ten times the calcium of brown rice, wheat, or maze, and three times the calcium content of milk (surprise!). Cancer initiation and progression can be reduced and glucose levels managed thanks to millet’s phenolic properties. Incidents of cardiovascular diseases are fewer in people who consume millet. [vi] It is a very good source of iron and fiber. Whew – that’s a lot!

Travel may be somewhat restricted now but that doesn’t stop us from taking a culinary world tour of whole grains. We can still experience the pleasure of eating grains and other foods enjoyed throughout the world right in our own homes. Challenge yourself to try a new grain a week and your food doldrums will disappear.

[i] Food Chem, 2013 Dec 1; 141(3):2821-7. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2013.05.100. Epub 2013 May 31.

[ii]Nascimento, K., Nascimento, S., Paes, s., deOliveira, I., Reis I., Augusta, I. (2018). Teff: Suitability for Different Food Applications ad as a Raw Material of Gluten-free, a Literature Review. J of Food and Nutrition Research. 2018 Vol.6, No. 2, 74-81. doi: 10.12691/jfmr-6-2-2.

[iii] www.nutritiondata.self.com.

[iv] “Teff and Millet – November Grains of the Month.” Whole Grains Council. Oldways Preservation Trust. Web. 17 Jan. 2015.

[v] Xiong, Y, Pangzhen, Z., Warner, R., Fang, Z. (18 October 2019). Sorghum Grain: From Genotype, Nutrition, and Phenolic Profile to It’s Health Benefits and Food Applications. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. doi: 10.1111/1541-4337.12506.

[vi] Devi, Vijayabharathi, Sathyabama, Malleshi, Priyadarisini (2014).Health Benefits of Finger Millet (Eleusine Coracana L.) Polyphenols and Dietary Fiber: A Review. J Food Sci Technol. 2014 Jun;51(6):1021-40. DOI: 10.007/s13197-011-0584-9.

Contributing Guest Writer: Jody Perrecone

Jody Perrecone is a certified nutrition consultant and graduated with honors from Bauman College. She graduated from CHIP (Complete Health Improvement Program) nearly two decades ago and has been an advocate for whole food plant-based nutrition ever since. She has a certification in plant-based nutrition from e-Cornell University and is the founder of Perrecone Wellness. Jody has a passion for helping her clients experience their best life with optimal nutrition and enjoys helping them on their journey. She also conducts WFPB cooking classes and has given numerous wellness presentations over the years to corporations, organizations, and even health food stores. She lives in Rockford, IL with her amazing husband and entertaining cat, Pico.