From amaranth to teff, the wild world of healthy whole grains need not be bland and boring.
At some point whole grains wrongly garnered the reputation of being the frumpy sister in the food family, while nutritionally-vacant refined grains started hogging all the love and affection. Banal white bread became the norm, white rice became the go-to grain, and the entire gang of whole grains was relegated to the back of the health food store.
Fortunately, whole grains started clamoring for attention, and with good reason. With their intact bran and germ, they are much better sources of fiber and other important nutrients. And they’re delicious! Refined grains are processed in a way that strips out both the bran and germ to give them a finer texture and extend their shelf life. The refining process also strips them of flavor, nutrients, and life — leaving behind just the bland byproducts that have little value.
Health benefits: Amaranth contains more than three times the average amount of calcium and is also high in iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. It’s the only grain confirmed to contain Vitamin C. Its protein content of 13-14% makes it higher than most other grains—and it’s a “complete” protein because it contains lysine, an amino acid that not many other grains contain.
Good for: Salads, baking, porridge, soups. And you can pop it, too!
Tips: Remains slightly crunchy, use at least 6 cups of water for every one cup of amaranth, cooks in 15-20 minutes.
Health benefits: Barley has the highest fiber content of all the grains, with common varieties ringing up about 17% fiber. It’s high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Good for: Side dishes, barley bread, porridge, barley flour for baking.
Tips: Pearl barley is missing some or all of its bran layer, so look for hulled barley or hulless barley, both of which retain their nourishment. Whole grain barley can take 50-60 minutes to cook — so cook a big batch then refrigerate it or freeze.
Health benefits: Unlike white rice, brown rice provides vitamin E and is high in fiber. It also contains generous amounts of manganese, magnesium, and selenium, as well as tryptophan. Look for brown basmati from California, India, or Pakistan as they have about a third less inorganic arsenic than brown rice from other regions.
Good for: Replacing white rice in any recipe — soups, stews, puddings, and pilafs.
Health benefits: Buckwheat contains higher levels of zinc, copper, and manganese than most grains — it also provides a very high amount of protein (second highest only to oats). It is rich in lysine, and its amino acid score is 100, which is one of the highest amino acid scores among plant sources!
Good for: Soba noodles, crepes, blinis, kasha, pancakes.
Health benefits: Bulgar is whole wheat berries that have been boiled, dried, and cracked. It has more fiber than quinoa, oats, millet, buckwheat or corn. It is commonly made from durum wheat, but almost any wheat, hard or soft, red or white, can be used.
Good for: Tabbouleh, side dishes, pilafs, salads.
Tips: Because bulgur has been precooked, it only needs to be boiled for 10 minutes or so.
Health benefits: Corn has 10 times more vitamin A than other grains, and recent research shows that corn is exuberantly high in antioxidants and carotenoids, especially those that are associated with eye health, such as lutein and zeaxanthin. Eating corn with beans creates a complementary mix of amino acids that raises the protein value to humans.
Good for: Many already eat corn on the cob, but it comes in many other forms, think popcorn, polenta, tortillas, corn muffins, and whole grits.
Tips: Make the label on cornmeal, corn flour, grits, polenta, etc is labeled “whole corn” or “whole grain corn.” If the it says “degermed corn,” then the nutritious germ has been removed from the corn, and it’s lacking in all of its nutrients. Also look for organic non-GMO products since, as one reader points out, there is a high penetration of GMO in corn crops.
Health benefits: Not just for the birds, millet is actually the main staple grain in India, and is popular in China, South America, Russia and the Himalayas. Millet is high in antioxidant activity, and especially high in magnesium. Research shows that millet is helpful in controlling diabetes and inflammation.
Good for: Indian roti, porridge, beer.
Tips: Millet has a mild flavor and is often mixed with other grains or toasted before cooking, to bring out the full extent of its delicate flavor. Its tiny grain can be white, gray, yellow or red. Most sources recommend cooking millet with about 2 ½ cups of liquid for each cup of millet grain.
Health benefits: Like barley, oats offer a unique kind of fiber known as beta-glucan, which is powerful in lowering cholesterol. Studies also show that oats also have a special antioxidant, avenanthramides, that helps protect blood vessels from the damaging effects of LDL cholesterol.
Good for: Oatmeal, cookies, veggie burgers, baked fruit topping.
Tips: Most oats in the U.S. are steamed and flattened to make regular (rolled) oats, quick oats, and instant oats. The more oats are flattened and steamed, the quicker they cook – and the softer they become. Look for the chewier, nuttier texture of steel-cut oats (also called Irish or Scottish oats) which have the entire oat kernel which are sliced into smaller pieces for easier cooking.
Health benefits: Quinoa is a “pseudo-cereal” (it is actually related to beets, chard and spinach), but that doesn’t make us love it any less. This superfood promotes super good health as it is one of the only plant foods that’s a complete protein, offering all the essential amino acids. Not only is the protein complete, but quinoa grains have an usually high ratio of protein to carbohydrate, since the germ makes up about 60% of the grain. Quinoa is also highest of all the whole grains in potassium, which helps control blood pressure.
Good for: Pilafs, soups, porridge, risotto, puddings, salads, side dishes. Tips: Quinoa has a subtle nutty taste — but make sure you rinse it well before cooking because it has a bitter natural coating, called saponin. Most quinoa has had the bitter coating removed, sometimes residue remains.
Health benefits: Rye‘s not just for diner toast with eggs, rye berries are a rich source of fiber, particularly arabinoxylan, which is also known for its high antioxidant activity. Rye grain contains phenolic acids, lignans, alkylresorcinos and many other salubrious compounds.
Health benefits: Spelt is higher in protein than common wheat. It is an excellent source of manganese, and a good source of protein, copper, and zinc. It is high in fiber, and contain notably more protein than wheat. Spelt is also higher in B complex vitamins, and both simple and complex carbohydrates.
Good for: Use spelt flour in place of regular four; spelt berries are good for side dishes, salads and cereal.
Tips: Spelt can be found in both whole and refined form in our food supply – so look for the words whole spelt.
Health benefits: Teff leads all the grains – by a long shot – in its calcium content, with a cup of cooked teff offering 123 mg, about the same amount of calcium as in a half-cup of cooked spinach. It’s also an excellent source of vitamin C, a nutrient not commonly found in grains.
Good for: Teff is the principal source of nutrition for over two-thirds of Ethiopians, who use it for their signature, spongy injera flatbread. Also used for porridge, baked goods, “teff polenta.”
Tips: Teff grains are Lilliputian – just 1/150 the size of wheat kernels. White or ivory teff is the mildest in flavor, with darker varieties having more of a nutty, earthy taste. Many, having only eaten teff in injera, think it has a sour taste, but that’s because it’s fermented in that recipe — in general, teff has a light, sweet flavor.
Dea is passionate about pursuing gentle, pure living in all its forms. She’s a veg and fruit foodie, who loves to explore the healing properties of plant-based foods and then fully indulge in their sun-filled taste. She believes that “In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.”