Think “whole grains,” and the usual suspects spring to mind: the whole-wheat bread you had in your sandwich yesterday or the bowl of oatmeal you ate for breakfast today. Kinda boring, huh?
Let’s face it — even if these whole-grain standbys aren’t totally played out in your book, they’re not exactly exciting. Some health experts also argue that we’ve been dangerously overexposed to wheat, in particular, because it’s become so ubiquitous in the foods we eat every day (think bread, pastries, pizza, pasta and cereal, to name just a few).
Besides, if wheat and oats are the only whole grains you’re eating, you’re missing out on a whole world of wonderful grains out there, many of which offer sensory, culinary and nutritional advantages that your old favorites can’t begin to match.
Why ignore the nutty goodness of buckwheat, the delicate texture of millet, the heady perfume of pigmented rice, the earthy satisfaction of rye and the mellow softness of barley? And why miss out on their health benefits?
Many of these so-called ancient grains are easier to digest, slower to raise blood sugar, and denser in the fiber and phytonutrients your body uses to ward off many chronic diseases, including cancer.
“Wheat is lower in fiber than both rye and barley,” says Leonard Marquart, PhD, RD, a food science and nutrition professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “There are also a variety of other compounds in less conventional whole grains that you don’t get in wheat, such as antioxidants that are much more powerful than vitamin C in protecting your body from free-radical formation.”
Another reason to expand your whole-grain repertoire? You’ll have more ways of avoiding gluten, a potentially irritating protein found in wheat and many other grains (read on for an overview of both gluten-free and gluten-containing whole grains).
“About 3 million Americans suffer from celiac disease and can’t have any gluten,” says Carol Fenster, PhD, author of eight cookbooks on gluten-free cuisine. People with celiac disease can experience digestive distress, joint pain, inflammation or skin problems when they eat gluten. Some experts believe that an additional 35 to 50 percent of the U.S. population is gluten-sensitive.
In their book, Dangerous Grains: Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous to Your Health (Avery, 2002), authors James Braly, MD, and Ron Hoggan, MA, experts in celiac disease and food allergies, make the case for cutting back on grains and eating more like our hunter-gatherer ancestors who thrived on fish, meat, fruits and vegetables for more than a million years before farming and grain cultivation were introduced.
Fenster recommends that anyone cutting back on gluten try to eat a wide variety of legumes, vegetables and non-gluten whole grains, rather than fill up on starchy, high-glycemic foods such as white rice and potatoes, or gluten-free flours made mostly of nutrient-poor refined starches.
Ready to expand your whole-grain horizons? Start by trying one or more of the five grains outlined on the next page. Most are available in the natural-foods section of many markets and can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer for up to a year. For an even wider range of grain options, see “The World of Grains” below.
The tiny, round yellow seeds you see in birdseed mixes may not look like much, but back in 2700 BC, millet was the life-saving grain for peasants in northern China, Africa and India.
Health benefits: The diminutive yellow grain is still a lifesaver. A cup provides a wealth of magnesium, which lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart disease as well as the severity of asthma and migraines. It’s also rich in phosphorus, which is essential to bones, energy and lipid metabolism. Millet is also high in manganese and lysine, an essential amino acid.
Contains gluten? No.
How-to: Toast or sauté in a dry, hot pan, and add hot water or stock in a ratio of 21⁄2 cups of liquid to 1 cup of millet for a fluffy, separate grain. Or, cook 1 cup of millet in 3 cups of water for a soft, golden porridge. Millet cooks in 20 to 25 minutes and is great in soups, pilafs, cereals and stir-fries; if you go the porridge route, you can chill millet and slice it like polenta.
Origin: If you’ve ever tasted rye bread, you already know the hearty, almost spicy flavor of rye. One of the world’s hardier grains, rye grows even in poor soils. Its gluten content made it a great bread flour for Northern European bakers who kneaded it into classic yeasted loaves. The majority of the rye we eat today is still grown in Northern Europe.
Health benefits: Rye is blessed with a higher fiber content and more antioxidants than wheat, says Marquart. “Rye also contains more of a kind of starch called arabinoxylans that may lower blood glucose,” he adds, noting that those starches also absorb more water than other kinds, creating bulk and a feeling of fullness.
Contains gluten? Yes.
How-to: Soak the grains overnight. Simmer 1 cup of rye in 2 cups of water until tender, about 45 minutes to an hour, and drain. Use rye in salads, soups and anywhere a zingy, crunchy grain is appropriate. Finding whole rye berries is tricky, so you may have to order online. (For these and all other whole grains mentioned in this article, a great source is Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods: www.bobsredmill.com.)
Origin: Barley is thought to be the first cereal grain ever domesticated, somewhere in Southeast Asia. It was the primary grain of ancient Sumer, Babylon, Egypt and the Mediterranean. Roman gladiators ate a porridge of barley, roasted flaxseeds and coriander, ingredients you might see in a healthy hot cereal today.
Health benefits: Most of the barley you see on store shelves is pearled barley, which is not a whole grain (it does, however, contain beneficial soluble fibers called pentosans and beta-glucans that lower cholesterol). Ask for unrefined hulled barley, sometimes called “naked barley,” a variety that still has the bran and germ intact. Barley is lowest on the glycemic index of the grains, providing slow-acting, longer-lasting energy.
Contains gluten? Yes.
How-to: Whole, hulled barley is a good grain to soak overnight, simmer in plenty of water or broth (1 cup of barley to 21⁄2 cups of liquid), and then drain or eat as soup. Whole, hulled barley that has been soaked cooks in 45 minutes to an hour and has a tender interior and crunchy bran layer (barley that has not been soaked may need to cook for up to 90 minutes). Barley adds a great texture to soups, salads and pilafs.
Origin: There are more than 100,000 varieties of rice grown throughout the world, and many of them are red, black, purple, mahogany, even greenish.
Health benefits: The rich colors of these rices are a sign of their vast health benefits, says Marquart: “The darker the color of a grain, the richer it tends to be in phenolic content and antioxidant activity.”
Contains gluten? No.
How-to: The colored rices come in long, short and sweet varieties. Generally, longer grains need a little more water and come out firmer, while shorter and sweet rices are very tender. The various rices generally take 11⁄2 to 21⁄2 cups of liquid per cup of rice, and cooking times range from 25 minutes to an hour, depending on the variety. All rice is gluten-free, even “glutinous” rice. “The dark rices are so substantial,” says Fenster. “I cook the black rice in coconut milk and put coconut and mangoes on top. I’m addicted to it as a dessert.”
Origin: Buckwheat is related to rhubarb and sorrel and is not really a grain, but the fruit seeds are cooked and eaten like grains, so we think of them as one. Domesticated in Central Asia 1,000 years ago, it landed in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages.
Health benefits: Buckwheat contains a phytochemical called rutin, which acts as an anti-inflammatory in the body, says Marquart. “Buckwheat might also be associated with a lowered risk of diabetes,” he says.
Contains gluten? No.
How-to: Like millet, buckwheat is often dry-toasted or sautéed before liquids are added, both to keep it from falling apart and to give it a nutty taste. (Toasted buckwheat is sold as kasha.) Cook 1 cup of buckwheat to 11⁄2 cups of liquid for a firm version; for a softer grain, use a 1-to-2 ratio. Buckwheat makes a hearty pilaf and is great in stuffed cabbage.
For some great recipes from Robin Asbell’s recent cookbook (which highlights these delicious and nutritious grains), see the Web Extras! below.
Robin Asbell is the author of The New Whole Grains Cookbook (Chronicle Books, 2007).