No grain, no… pain? Recently, nutritional staples like wheat, rice, corn, oats, and barley have turned into dietary pariahs, sending people looking for alternatives.
There are a host of unique grains enjoyed in cultures around the world, each one offering unique health benefits. One of these wheat-free alternatives, quinoa, has become the hottest super-food in the United States. Super grains pack fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals along with carbohydrates. And, of course, you do not need to have Celiac disesase or be gluten sensitive to want to broaden your grain intake and diversify from wheat and corn. The US Dietary Guidelines recommend eating at least 6 servings a day of grains – so why not eat better grains that will do more for you?
Like quinoa, teff is gluten-free. Although it’s the smallest grain in the world— its name translates to “lost,” perhaps because it’s easy to misplace individual grains— this ancient North African cereal grass teff has significant nutritional benefits, including high amounts of protein, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. It’s also a good source of a dietary fiber called resistant starch, which may help to maintain blood sugar levels, promote colon health, and help with weight management.
Traditionally, teff is ground into a mild, nutty flour, which can be substituted for wheat flour to bake gluten-free cakes and breads. Used as a whole grain, it can be added to stews or cooked into a dish similar to polenta.
Amaranth actually isn’t a true grain at all—it’s from a different family of plants than other cereal crops. However, it offers a nutritional profile similar to traditional grains, making this “pseudocereal” an easy, gluten-free parallel to true grains.
In addition to serving up a good dose of calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, and magnesium, Amaranth is also the only “grain” documented to contain Vitamin C. Furthermore, amaranth is a complete protein—it contains lysine, an amino acid missing from many other grains. Studies have shown that amaranth may have potential cholesterol-lowering properties that could be of value to people with cardiovascular issues.
Cooking with amaranth is easy. This versatile grain can be made into a hot cereal or added to baked goods—it has a light, nutty flavor that adds an extra dimension to breads and muffins. In many South American countries, popped amaranth is a popular snack and street food. You can also sprinkle the cooked grains into salads or stir them into soups and stews.
Sorghum is one of the most prevalent cereal crops in the world. This (you guessed it!) gluten-free grain is versatile and naturally drought tolerant. Although it only recently started to gain popularity in the U.S. as a gluten-free food, sorghum has many other nutritional benefits: it is rich in iron, protein, and dietary fiber. Some varieties of sorghum are high in antioxidants, which may help support cardiac health and lower the risk of cancer and diabetes. Sorghum’s starch and proteins have a lower glycemic index and take longer to digest compared to other grains, which can help with blood sugar and weight management.
Sorghum has a lightly sweet flavor and can be substituted for flour in many dishes. In addition to making gluten-free breads, pizza dough, and other baked goods, look for global recipes such as sorghum couscous, tortillas and flatbreads. You can even try cooking sorghum grains to form a dish similar to rice.
It’s not technically a grain or wheat – it’s a cousin to rhubarb. Buckwheat is often lumped together with super grains because it has a similar nutritional profile. Buckwheat has high levels of rutin, which helps improve circulation and may lower the “bad” cholesterol. Buckwheat costs about $3 to $7, depending on which form you buy it in. You can buy it as groats – which is the whole grain, as buckwheat pancake mixes and noodles, which are popular in Japan – also known as soba. You may also see buckwheat labeled as “kasha,” which means it’s toasted buckwheats and has a nuttier flavor. Instead of rice, boil 1 cup of kasha or toasted buckwheat with 2 cups water or broth for about 10 minutes; let stand for 5 minutes before sautéing with onions (or other vegetables) for a delicious buckwheat pilaf!
Millet is actually popular all around world – in India, it’s ground into their bread. In Africa, they use it in the porridges and to make beer. In this country, a type of millet is used in birdfeed! Millet provides magnesium and B vitamins, two nutrients that have been shown to help reduce muscle/nerve pain like migraine headaches, muscle tension and cramps. Millet is being rediscovered for its possible role in helping control diabetes and inflammation in the body. Millet is a versatile grain that can be prepared like hot cereal, mashed like potato or fluffed like rice. Ground into flour, millet can be used to make dough, pancakes, muffins or bread. Millet can be found in health-food stores bagged. Whole millet costs about $2 a pound. Look for hulled, not pearled – hulled means it’s whole grain and has more fiber.