In Monday’s post I barely scratched the surface of whole grains. We learned that whole grains are cancer fighting foods, and should therefore make up the majority of our grain intake. I also discussed some whole grain basics and how to use this information to find a good whole grain bread.
Bread is a great starting point because most of us consume it on a regular basis. However, eventually I recommend people convert all the grains in their home to whole grains.
Definition of a Whole Grain Revisited
To be considered a whole grain, all 3 main components of the grain kernal must be present: the germ, endosperm and the bran. To help me remember these components I like to think of an egg. The bran is like the shell, the endosperm is like the white and the germ is like the yolk. See Monday’s post for a nice visual.
Grains may be processed by being cracked, crushed, rolled or ground into flour. As long as the 3 main components of the grain kernal remain present, it is considered “whole”. For example, 100% whole wheat flour is ground using the entire grain kernal.
This is different from the refinement process in which the germ and the bran are removed leaving only the starchy endosperm behind. An example of a refined grain product is all purpose white flour. According to the Whole Grains Council, approximately 25% of a grain’s protein and 17 key nutrients are left behind in the refining process.
Health Benefits of Whole Grains
Switching to whole grains will give you an overall improvement in your health.
Whole grains are rich in cancer fighting components such as antioxidants, phenols, lignans and saponins. They are also rich in fiber and B-vitamins.
Whole grains are digested more slowly than refined grains which can help stabilize blood sugar levels. People with diabetes can benefit from this effect.
List of Common Whole Grains
* indicates gluten-free
** By nature, oats are gluten-free, however, they are often contaminated with wheat during growing and processing. Some brands offer pure, uncontaminated oats. Usually this is stated on the package. You may want to call the manufacturer to verify or ask questions.
Wheat was one of the first plants to be cultivated by humans. Whole wheat comes in many different forms. Wheat berries are whole wheat kernals and can be used in side dishes or in breakfast cereals. Cracked wheat is wheat berries that have been cut. Cracked wheat has a shorter cooking time than wheat berries because they have been split open. Bulgur is often confused with cracked wheat. Bulgur is wheat berries that have been boiled, dried and broken into smaller pieces. Bulgur is very versatile and can be used as a base in many salads or side dishes. It does not require a lot of cooking time because it has already been pre-cooked. Bulgur is popular in many middle-eastern dishes. It is the base for one of my favorite salads, tabouleh.
Ancient wheat varieties include: Spelt, Emmer/Farro, Einkorn, and Kumut.
Barley was a popular grain in the ancient world and may have even been grown before rice! Today barley is less popular with half of its production being fed to animals. As compared to all the grains, barley has the highest amount of fiber. One half cup of uncooked barley contains 15 grams of fiber! Barley has a tough inedible outer layer (this is called a hull). “Pearling” is a process used to remove this outer layer. Most of the bran is lost in the process, therefore pearled barley is not considered a whole grain. There is another process called “hulling” which removes the tough outer layer carefully, leaving most of the bran intact. Hulled barley is considered a whole grain. Occasionally you will see barley flakes. They can be treated like rolled oats. They are only considered to be whole grain if they are made from hulled barley. Barley is good added to soups.
Buckwheat is known as a pseudo-grain. It is not technically a grain but is grouped here because its characteristics resemble a grain more closely than anything else. It is actually a relative of the rhubarb family. Just like barley, buckwheat has a tough outer layer (hull). Most of the buckwheat we see in stores has this hull removed. These are referred to as buckwheat groats and can be used in cereals or side dishes. Buckwheat is often ground into a flour and used in baked goods and noodles. The Japanese make soba noodles out of buckwheat. Kasha is essentially buckwheat groats that have been roasted. Buckwheat pancakes are popular in the U.S., however, many are made with a large amount of refined flour.
Corn was domesticated in Mexico 7,000-10,000 years ago. Corn is the third largest human food crop in the world behind rice and wheat. Corn is commonly eaten by itself but is also ground into corn meal for breads and tortillas. When buying corn meal, look for “whole ground corn” on the ingredients label. Look for tortillas that have been made with whole ground corn. Many people do not know that popcorn is a whole grain snack! If you are buying packaged corn and it is labeled as “degerminated”, it is not a whole grain.
Believe it or not, over 90% of the World’s oat supply is fed to animals. The whole oat kernal is called a groat. Steel cut oats are whole oats that have been cut into 2 or 4 pieces. This allows for faster cooking. Rolled oats are whole oat groats that have been steamed to make them soft, then rolled to make them thin. The thinner the oats, the more quickly they rehydrate. That is the difference between old fashioned, quick and instant oats. Oats are obviously great for cereal! I love to use them in granola recipes. I also find that oats can be a good binding agent in veggie burger recipes.
White rice has been refined to remove the germ and the bran, and is not considered a whole grain. Brown rice is the whole grain form of rice. However, brown is not the only color of whole grain rice. It can also be black, purple or red! The term “brown rice” will guarantee you are getting a whole grain product. Same goes for the other colors of rice. Rice is very easily digested. It is great with stir fries or as a side dish to many recipes.
Wild rice is actually not rice but the seed of an aquatic grass. However, it is still a relative of the traditional rice species. It has a great nutty flavor. It is great to use as a side dish with other savory flavors. Wild rice has twice the protein and fiber of brown rice.
Rye is more popular in Russia and Europe than here in the U.S. It is commonly found as whole “rye berries”. Rye berries can be used as a side dish, cooked into a pilaf, or added to soups. Rye berries are also ground into flour to make rye bread. Be careful- not all rye bread is whole grain. Check to see if the first ingredient listed says “whole grain rye flour”.
Lesser Known Whole Grains
This grain is closely related to quinoa. It is very tiny and round. It can be cooked like porridge, puffed like popcorn, or toasted to be used as a garnish. Like buckwheat, amaranth is a pseudo-grain. I have seen amaranth flour available in grocery stores for gluten-free baking. Amaranth packs a lot of protein for its size. One half cup serving of cooked amaranth has 5 grams of protein.
Millet is also very small in size. It is tiny, yellow and bead-like in appearance. This grain is native to Africa and Asia. In the U.S, it is mostly used as bird feed. Millet can be made into pilafs and cereals, added to soups, and popped like popcorn as a snack. A lot of cooks recommend toasting it first in the pan to bring out its flavor.
Sorghum is believed to have evolved in Africa. It is highly tolerant to drought and heat, which makes it an important crop. However, in the U.S. sorghum is used mostly as livestock feed. Sorghum is gluten free and its flour can be substituted for wheat flour in many recipes. Sorghum can be boiled like rice, popped, or used to make porridges. Sorghum shouldn’t be sprouted because it produces cyanide in the process.
Teff is widely used in Ethiopia. The seeds are very tiny, less than 1 mm in size. Teff can be cooked as a porridge. Ground teff is used to create injera, the bread of Ethiopia. Teff also has a good amount of protein (for a grain). One half cup of cooked Teff has 5 grams of protein.
Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye. It has only been grown commercially for a few decades. This grain grows easily without fertilizers and pesticides.
The link above will take you to a post I previously wrote on quinoa.
When it comes to whole grains, many options are available. Try experimenting with different grains to make your food-life more exciting! If you want to select a product made with whole grains such as bread, cereal or noodles, check the ingredients list to make sure the first ingredient listed states “whole grain ______ flour” (insert name of grain on the line).
Tell me what you think! Have you experimented with different whole grains? What has been your experience? Leave a comment in the comments section
Whole Grains Council (great info here!)
On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee.
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman.
photo by: kevinLallier