There are many different whole grains grown all over the world. Learning about and consuming grains that grow well in native soil where wheat does not, is a step toward supporting more sustainable farming and more prudent economies.
Amaranth was a staple of Aztec culture until Cortez decreed that anyone growing the crop would be put to death. Seeds were smuggled out to Asia, and now Amaranth is grown in India, China, and Africa. Amaranth kernels are tiny, when cooked they resemble brown caviar. In addition to fiber, calcium, and iron, Amaranth has a high level (13%-14%) of complete protein compared to other grains and its protein contains lysine, an amino acid missing, or negligible in many grains. Its nutritional profile and uses are similar to other "cereal grains". It has a lively, peppery taste and no gluten, so it must be mixed with wheat to make leavened breads. It is popular in cereals, breads, muffins, crackers, and pancakes. Uncooked amaranth may be toasted and used to top cereals, breads, salads, casseroles, and noodles.
Barley is one of the oldest cultivated grains, highly adaptable to its growing environment where it is grown as far north as the Arctic circle and as far south as Ethiopia. It is considered a cereal grain and is used to make both food and beverages, including beer. The fiber in barley is an especially healthy water-soluble variety; it may lower cholesterol even more effectively than oat fiber. Barley has a particularly tough hull, which is difficult to remove without losing some of the bran. Whole, hulled barley (sometimes called dehulled), available at health food stores, has only its tough outer shell, or hull, removed so it retains more of the whole-grain nutrients, but it is very slow-cooking.
Pearled barley is more refined with the hull and some of the bran is removed through a polishing process similar to how rocks are polished. Conventional pearled barley is almost white and may also have been treated with steam for quicker cooking. However, this type of pearled barley has had much of the vitamin, mineral, and fiber content removed during the pearling process. If the barley has been "lightly" or roughly pearled, it will retain a tan color and some, but not all of the nutrients. Barley is also sold in a rolled or flake form, and as flour. Rolled grains are whole grains that have been steamed and then flattened. Barley is especially tasty in soups, stews, casseroles, pilafs, or salads.
Buckwheat is considered a cereal grain, but it is actually a fruit seed that is related to rhubarb and sorrel, making it a suitable substitute for people who are sensitive to wheat and protein glutens. Buckwheat is grown in the New England area of the United States, and in Buckwheat flowers are very fragrant and are attractive to bees that use them to produce a special, strongly flavored, dark honey. Buckwheat has over 80 nutrients and is considered beneficial for the cardiovascular system and controlling blood sugar since it ranks low on the glycemic index. Buckwheat has more protein than rice, wheat, millet, or corn and is high in essential amino acids lysine and arginine.
Hulled buckwheat kernels are called groats, while roasted buckwheat groats are known as kasha - a staple food in Eastern Europe where it is often steamed in a stock with onions, olive oil, and fresh parsley. In China, Korea, and Japan, buckwheat is often consumed in the form of "soba" noodles, which can be found in most natural food stores. Buckwheat can also be cooked as a breakfast cereal and used as flour in pancakes and pasta. An interesting note is that buckwheat hulls are used in Japan for making traditional pillow fillings. These special Japanese pillows are known as “Sobakawa” pillows and can often be found in some large natural product stores or where organic cotton and other environmentally friendly home goods are sold.
Bulgar is primarily durum whole wheat grain that has been cracked and partially pre-cooked. It is naturally high in fiber, low in fat and calories, and often used in vegetarian and vegan diets. But it is not suitable for gluten-free diets. Sometimes referred to as "Middle Eastern pasta" due to its versatility in various dishes, it has more fiber than quinoa, oats, millet, buckwheat, or corn. It is quickly cooked (about 10 minutes) and is most often found in dishes such as tabouli, but can be used just like rice, couscous, or any other whole grain.
Known as "maize" in most of the world, corn is actually the most widely-grown crop in the Americas, where it originated. Fresh corn is usually classified as a vegetable and dried corn (including popcorn) as a grain. Most of the corn grown in the US is used for animal feed, and it is also used as a key ingredient for everything from ethanol to medicines and fabric. It is used in more than 3,000 grocery products. Its nutrient profile includes Vitamin A, with more than 10 times the amount found in other grains; but it is also high in antioxidants and carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxanthin. In many traditional cultures, corn is eaten with beans because they have complementary amino acids that work together to provide complete proteins.
Corn does not grow in the wild and is dependent on humans for pollination and seed production. As a result, there are many different types of corn. Sweet corn – white or yellow – is the type consumed as a vegetable. Dent Corn, also known as Field Corn, is the type usually fed to livestock and used to make industrial products. Other types commonly found in the fall are the decorative Indian corn varieties that come in a range of colors. These are known as Flint corn and a sub-species of Flint corn is used for popping corn. In recent years, heritage corn varieties have come into vogue for their different color and nutritional attributes such as Suntava Purple Corn (a non-GMO, gluten-free corn with an ORAC Score of 10,800), a heritage corn ingredient that is trending in emerging natural food products.
Emmer farrow is one of three ancient strains of wheat, now considered cereal grains. The other two farro strains are einkorn and spelt. Over the centuries, the use of farro was abandoned in favor of durum wheat, which is easier to hull. But it lived on in Italy where it has been cultivated for centuries and it is now coming back into vogue for its nutrition and flavor. Whole-grain farro is the highest in fiber and nutrients like Vitamin B3 and zinc, but it requires soaking overnight before cooking. It also comes in semi-pearled and pearled varieties and can be used in cereals, soups, salads, and desserts.
Freekeh is a newly popular grain, made from young, green wheat (usually durum) that has been used for centuries in the Middle East. Compared to other grains, it is higher in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals and is lower in the glycemic index. It has a smoky, nutty flavor and firm, chewy texture similar to bulgur. It cooks in 20 minutes and can be substituted for rice or couscous in other dishes. It is also used in cereals, soups, casseroles, and side dishes, and can be made into a form of pudding.
Kamut is an heirloom grain, once pushed aside by an agricultural monoculture. Years of selecting, testing, and propagating eventually brought the grain to prominence, especially on organic farms, and now KAMUT® brand Khorasan wheat is made into over 450 whole-grain products around the world, many of which are carried in natural product stores. Kamut has higher levels of protein than common wheat, more Vitamin E and higher selenium, zinc, and magnesium. It produces more energy in the body than carbohydrates and sometimes is classified as "high energy" wheat. It is milled into flour and can be used in many recipes calling for wheat flour. It is typically used in baked foods, cereals, or trail mixes.
Millet is an ancient grain, with a mildly sweet flavor, non-acid forming, and contains a myriad of beneficial nutrients. It is one of the least allergenic and most digestible, gluten-free American grains. Worldwide, millet feeds more than one-third of the world’s population. Millet is tiny in size and round in shape and can be white, gray, yellow, or red. The most widely available form of millet found in stores is the hulled variety, although traditional couscous made from cracked millet can also be found. Millet is a good source of copper, manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, B-complex vitamins, and essential amino acids, methionine, and lecithin. Rich in phytochemicals, it is believed to help lower cholesterol as well as prevent gallstones because it is high in insoluble fiber. Millet is widely used as birdseed and livestock fodder; humans use it in breads, beers, fermented drinks, porridges, and is used in casseroles, stews, burgers, and even desserts.
Unique among grains, oats almost never have their bran and germ removed in processing so they retain their nutrients through many types of processing. They have a sweet flavor that makes them a favorite for breakfast cereal and cookies, too. Oats also contain a natural antioxidant that acts as a preservative to extend shelf life.
Oats are available in several forms:
- Groats are whole grain oats with only the hull removed; good in soups or stews.
- Steel-cut oats are oat groats that have been thinly sliced lengthwise. They are a tasty addition to hot breakfast cereals.
- Rolled oats are whole oats that have been steamed and flattened.
- Oat bran is the digestible outer covering of whole oats and is a soluble fiber that has been found to lower blood cholesterol levels.
Scientific studies have concluded that like barley, oats contain a special kind of fiber called beta-glucan found to be especially effective in lowering cholesterol. Recent research reports indicate that oats also have a unique antioxidant, avenanthramides, that helps protect blood vessels from the damaging effects of LDL cholesterol.
Quinoa shines nutritionally with twice as much protein as many of the more common cereal grains. Its balance of essential amino acids is closest to a complete protein, making it important for many vegan, vegetarian, diabetic, and other carb-conscious diets. Among grains, it is also the highest in potassium, which helps to control blood pressure. Since it is gluten-free, it is very useful to the celiac community and to gluten-sensitive individuals.
An ancient sacred staple of the Incas in the South American Andes, quinoa is now grown in the Colorado Rockies. Not a grain, it is a relative of Swiss chard and beets but looks and cooks like a grain. Quinoa has a unique star-shaped hull that contains orange-colored, bitter-tasting saponins, a plant-defense that wards off insects that must be rinsed off for human consumption.
Over 120 different varieties of the small round grains are available in yellow or ivory, red, purple, and black varieties. Quinoa is drought resistant and has been designated a super crop by the UN for its potential to feed hungry, poor people around the globe. It can be refined into flakes and flour and is quick cooking, taking only about 10 minutes to cook and when done is quadrupled in size.
The hull and most of the saponins are removed before shipping, but quinoa should be rinsed well or toasted before cooking to remove any remaining bitter-tasting saponins.
Rice is a staple food for over half the world’s population and is extremely versatile. Rice typically grows in warm, humid climates; in the US it is grown in Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas.
There are many different types of rice:
- Brown rice is the whole grain form with only the hull removed. It is available as short, medium, and long-grain. Longer grains produce rice that is separate and fluffy. Shorter grains tend to be more moist and sticky.
- White rice is rice that has the bran and germ removed making it nutritionally inferior.
- Sweet rice is a short-grain brown rice variety that is very sticky when cooked. It is used in most traditional cooking in countries on the Pacific Rim, along with beverages such as rice wine.
- Basmati rice is special long grain rice originally found in the foothills of the Himalayas. It has a distinct aroma and flavor, a nutty flavor almost resembling buttered peanuts. It is available in both refined (white) and unrefined (brown) forms and is used extensively in Indian foods.
- Japonica is a short-grain black rice originating in Japan. Japonica has a sticky texture and grassy flavor. It is found primarily in gourmet rice blends combined with brown rice.
- Texmati rice is a hybrid of long grain rice and basmati rice that is grown primarily in Texas. Its rich flavor and aroma are similar to basmati rice.
- Wehani rice is a rust-colored, long-grain variety developed from an Indian Basmati-type seed by the Lundberg brothers, California farmers who pioneered the cultivation of organic rice. When cooked, it smells like corn popping. Wehani is an acronym of the brothers’ names.
- Himalayan Red Rice is typically imported from India. It has a reddish bran layer and a nutty, complex flavor that adds attractive visual attributes and taste to any dish
- Other types include Colusari Red Rice, Purple Thai Rice, and Chinese Black Rice.
Customers will find refined white rice on grocery store shelves, with the germ and brand removed, and all of the nutritional components. "Converted rice" is a type that has been parboiled before refining. This causes some of the B vitamins to be retained in the endosperm, but the other nutrients found in whole or brown rice are lost. Brown rice is lower in fiber than other whole grains but is easily digested, especially useful for gluten-free diets and those on a restricted diet. It is also an excellent source of manganese and selenium.
Wild rice is not actually rice or even a grain, but the seeds of a wild aquatic grass. Native to North America, it is difficult to row and usually costs more than other grains. It is slightly higher in protein than other whole grains and is a good source of fiber, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, zinc, vitamin B6, and niacin. In 2009 researchers also found that wild rice has 30 times more antioxidant activity than white rice.
Rye is a hardy grain that is a traditional part of the cuisine in Northern Europe and Russia. Long considered a weed, it is now prized for its ability to rapidly grow in areas too wet or cold for other grains and for its superior nutrition to wheat, which includes a higher level of antioxidants and fiber in its endosperm and a lower glycemic index than traditional wheat varieties. Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye which was produced as early as 1875 to replicate the advantages of wheat for its product qualities and advantages of rye for its ability to thrive in any condition. In texture and taste, triticale is a blend of wheat’s nuttiness and rye’s chewiness, with a hint of rye’s distinct taste. Over the decades, the Triticale variety was underutilized but is now experiencing a resurgence because it is especially suited for organic farming. Both rye and triticale help to improve bowel health, better control blood sugar, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, and help with overall weight management due to its satiety properties. Most products made from these grains are breads and crackers, but the grains can be used in side dishes and pilafs, added to soups, used for summer salads, and are good for hot cereals in the winter. Rye berries take about an hour to cook unless they have been soaked overnight. Rye comes in whole kernels with just the hull removed, called berries, and also in cracked and rolled varieties.
Sorghum is the fifth most important cereal crop in the world. In Africa and parts of Asia, sorghum is a human food product, but in the US, about 12% of it is used to produce ethanol and most of the remainder is used as livestock feed. Sorghum grain has no gluten and flour is appearing more frequently in gluten-free products and recipes. Also called milo, it can be eaten like popcorn, cooked into porridge, ground into flour for baked goods, or even brewed into beer.
Sorghum doesn't have an inedible hull and is commonly eaten with all its outer layers, thus retaining all its nutrients. It is grown from traditional seeds and is non-GMO. Some specialty sorghum grains are high in antioxidants and the wax surrounding the sorghum grain contains policosanols. Some experts’ research has found that policosanols may positively impact cardiac health by helping to lower cholesterol, especially as compared to statins. A wide variety of recipes using sorghum can be found online and in cookbooks, particularly those catering to a gluten-free diet. These recipes include muffins, breads, pizzas, pastas, casseroles, cookies, cakes, pies, and more.
One of the first grains known and used by man, spelt, also called German wheat or "big farro", lost its popularity due to its lower yields using modern, conventional agriculture. A tasty grain with a nutty flavor, it contains more protein, fats, and fiber than common wheat and contains a special carbohydrate called mucopolysaccharide which stimulates the immune system to increase resistance to infection. Spelt is also a good source of calcium, magnesium, selenium, zinc, iron, manganese Vitamins E and B-complex, especially niacin. Although spelt contains gluten, it is more easily digested than wheat and can be tolerated by many people with wheat allergies. Cooked spelt berries can be eaten in salads or substituted for rice or pasta, and is produced as a flour to use for breads and pasta.
Teff is a main source of nutrition for over two-thirds of Ethiopians, who make it into injera, a flat spongy bread basic to Ethiopian cuisine. It is also widely consumed in other countries in the Horn of Africa. Teff is tiny beige seeds, similar in size to millet, that are increasingly popular due to their sweet, molasses-like flavor and versatility. It can be cooked for porridge, added to baked goods, made into polenta-type dishes, and ground into flour. It grows in red, brown, and white varieties. Because the grain is so small, it is not refined, so it is consumed in its whole form including bran and germ with all their inherent nutrients. Teff is gluten-free and has high amounts of iron and three times the calcium than other grains. It also has a newly-discovered dietary fiber, called resistant starch, which benefits blood sugar management, weight control, and colon health.
Wheat is by far the world’s largest food crop. It provides more nourishment to the people of this planet than any other single food. Its popularity is due to its versatility, crop durability, and nutritional value. It contains large amounts of gluten, that stretchy protein that provides the ability to create risen breads. Wheat can take many other forms than flour including wheat berries, another term for the whole wheat kernel, bulgur, the pre-crooked broken wheat kerns, flakes, and puffs. Wheat berries are typically used in casseroles, soups, or side dishes; wheat flakes or puffs are typically used in breakfast cereals. Cracked wheat is whole wheat that is broken into small pieces by very coarse milling. It is a popular breakfast cereal and maybe served as a grain dish for dinner or formed into croquettes. Each wheat variety has a different nutrition profile. Aside from its benefit as a versatile crop, whole wheat has many, well-studied health benefits for reducing the risk of stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, blood pressure, and inflammatory disease.
Wheat has two distinct growing seasons. Winter wheat, which normally accounts for 70 to 80 percent of U.S. production, is sown in the fall and harvested in the spring or summer; spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in late summer or early fall. There are hundreds of different wheat varieties grown in the U.S. which can be grouped into six categories:
Hard Red Winter - these grains are mainly produced in the Great Plains states. They have been used mainly to produce bread, rolls, and some sweet goods and all-purpose flour.
Hard Red Spring - This variety has the highest percentage of protein and is grown in Montana, North and South Dakota, and Minnesota. It is excellent bread wheat with superior milling and baking characteristics.
Soft Red Winter - Grown primarily east of the Mississippi River. It is a high yielding, but a relatively low protein grain used for flatbreads, cakes, pastries, and crackers among other products.
Durum - This is the hardest of all U.S. wheat. It's grown in the same northern states as Hard Red Spring, although 70 to 80 percent of the U.S. annual production comes from North Dakota. It's used to make semolina flour for pasta production.
Hard White Wheat - The newest variety of wheat grown in the U.S., this variety is closely related to red wheat (except for color genes). It has a milder, sweeter flavor, equal fiber, and similar milling and baking properties and is used mainly in yeast breads, hard rolls, bulgur, tortillas, and oriental noodles.
Soft White Wheat – This grain is used in much the same way as Soft Red Winter (for bakery products other than bread). It is grown mainly in the Pacific Northwest and to a lesser extent in California, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New York. It is low protein, but high yielding and produces flour for baking cakes, crackers, cookies, pastries, quick breads, muffins, and snack foods.