Whole Grains 101
If only we knew that the diet staples from pretty much the beginning of time would be the most sought after foods amongst todays health nuts, we could have skipped a lot of crazy fad diets over the years - Atkins anyone? The day I give up on carbs is the day I give up on life. Whoever started the war versus carbohydrates was clearly one of those people who eats sandwich thins. A slice of bread as thin as a piece of paper should in no way have an ingredient list as long as this blog post. People have become so concerned with calorie counts, that they're willing to eat rubber as long as it's sugar-free. But when you bring food back to it's natural state, free of preservatives and full of nutrition, meals are not only delicious, but more satisfying. You're filling up on protein, fiber, and healthy fats, not calcium propionate and polydextrose (check your sandwich thin). The knowledge available today regarding the food we eat is amazing, and sometimes scary, but we're here to help. The following list of whole grains, some dating back to the beginning of human civilization, are making a comeback, and we hope you jump on the bandwagon.
A staple amongst the Aztecs, until Cortez decided that anyone growing the crop would be put to death (seems fair?), amaranth is making a comeback for its high protein content and lack of gluten. Not technically a grain, but a pseudo-grain like quinoa, it's nutritional profile is very similar to your typical wheats and rices, and is rich in lysine, calcium, and B-vitamins. When cooked, the tiny kernels resemble brown caviar and are quite peppery.
Did you know that in 1324 the inch was standardized to be equal in length with "three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end-to-end lengthwise?" And before that, the Egyptians were using barley for like necklaces and stuff, so clearly barley is a thing, and you should eat it. But seriously, for those not gluten sensitive, this is a grain worth getting into. When comparing varieties, go for hulled or hull-less barley, both of which retain most of the grain, as opposed to the pearled version (still nutritious, just a bit more refined). Fiber-filled and nutty, barley is larger in size than your typical rice, and has a really nice chewy bite, a perfect addition to soups and stews.
Not technically a grain at all, but a cousin of rhubarb, buckwheat, like amaranth, is another pseudo-grain for it's similar nutritional profile. It's easy to grow and thrives without the use of chemical pesticides (woohoo!). Buckwheat is rich in zinc, boosting your immune system, and regulating blood sugar, as well as B-vitamins. It's also the only grain known to have high levels of the antioxidant rutin, which studies show helps to improve circulation and prevents bad cholesterol from blocking blood vessels.
With more fiber than quinoa, oats, millet, buckwheat, or corn, bulgar is the result of boiling, drying, then cracking wheat kernels. And because of this pre-cooking process, bulgar is a nutritious grain that can be ready to eat in about ten minutes, making it a perfect healthy fast food option. Most commonly used in Middle-Eastern tabbouleh salad, bulgur contains a whopping 26 grams of fiber and 17 grams of protein in one, uncooked cup.
Farro, or emmer, is an ancient strain of wheat dating back to the fertile crescent and the first ever human civilizations. It was replaced when durum wheat was popularized for its ease of cultivating. Still common in Italy and other parts of Europe, Asia, and the Middle-East, farro is similar to barley and spelt, and is a great source of complex carbohydrates, protein, and fiber. The carbohydrates in farro actually stimulate the immune system, lower cholesterol and help regulate blood sugar levels. And although it does contain gluten, the gluten molecules are weaker than most modern wheat, so many with sensitivities still find farro acceptable. Make sure to look for whole farro as opposed to the pearled variety.
A cousin to quinoa, kañiwa boasts a high protein content (16%) and a more complete balance of amino acids than most grains. Unlike quinoa, kañiwa is not coated with bitter saponins that must be rinsed off first. It is high in iron, gluten-free, and cooks to look like a miniature version of red quinoa. Kañiwa makes a great breadcrumb alternative, and I imagine adding some cooked grains to a pancake batter would be really tasty.
The most commonly used grain in India, millet has been around for thousands of years. It is rich in B-vitamins, which help to support metabolism, increase immunity, and enhance energy levels, protein, and antioxidants. Millet is an extremely versatile grain, that can easily be ground into flour or fermented and used in alcoholic beverages. Naturally gluten-free, millet is simple to cook and when toasted lightly before boiling, it becomes quite nutty tasting.
Unlike most modern grains today, oats almost never have their bran and germ removed in processing, leaving you with a nutritiously dense whole food. Popularized for their cholesterol lowering abilities, oats have become a staple at the breakfast table. Whether you go for the steel-cut variety or the rolled, oats are an excellent choice, rich in fiber and packed with flavor.
An ancient Incan pseudo-grain, quinoa is actually a relative to swiss chard and beets, as opposed to wheat. It's similar in size to poppy seeds, and comes in a rainbow of colors: white, red, purple, and black. Hailed by vegans everywhere, this powerful little plant is a complete protein, containing all of the essential amino acids our bodies cannot make on its own. It's also a great source of magnesium, iron, copper, and phosphorus. The only annoyance? Quinoa must be rinsed before cooking to remove some of the saponins, a plant-defense to ward off insects. Truth be told, I've never rinsed mine, and I'm still alive and eating it on the reg.
RICE (brown, black, red, purple, wild)
The whole grain varieties of rice (i.e. not white) are one of the most easily digested foods on the planet, making it the most recommended food to first introduce your baby to. Rice comes in a wide variety of exotic hues, each boasting their own antioxidant benefit. It is gluten-free, and rich in protein, thiamine, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and potassium. Rice rates low on the glycemic index, helping to curb spikes in insulin levels, and keep your energy levels stable throughout the day.
One of the more popular grains in ancient times and often used for its healing abilities in the Middle Ages, spelt lost its luster when industrialization rolled in and wheat cultivation was the way to grow. And like wheat, spelt comes in kernels (known as spelt berries), or can be ground into flour. Spelt is high in protein, fiber, manganese, phosphorus, niacin, and copper, and some say can be tolerated by people with gluten sensitivities, but it's always best to check with your doctor first.