The research is in. Without a shadow of a doubt, whole grains are far superior with respect to disease prevention and weight management than their refined counterparts. The list of reasons why is long, but here are the Coles Notes:
- More vitamins and minerals including selenium, vitamin E and magnesium.
- More phytochemicals, which wage war against disease-causing free radicals.
- More appetite-quelling, heart-protective fiber.
- A lower glycemic index, which reduces blood sugar spikes and, hence, diabetes risk.
And now the cat is out of the bag, and everyone seems to be hopping on the “whole grain” bandwagon as the media exalts their nutrition virtues and the Atkins craze becomes a thing of the past. Thing is, much of what health savvy individuals are consuming is brown rice, oats and whole wheat. This is coming at the expense of the wide array of other whole grains that are begging for some masticating attention. So in the name of culinary diversity, here are five lesser utilized whole grains that have the goods to fight disease, boost training results and re-stimulate a bored palate.
I’D: Although almost always consider a grain, quinoa (pronounced “keen-wa”) is actually a seed gleaned from a plant related to spinach and grown almost exclusively in the South American Andes. Unlike most crops, it thrives in drought conditions at altitude. It is most often sold in its beige form, but red and black quinoa is also sporadically available.
Nutrition Advantage: The Incan empires often looked to quinoa, which they called “the mother of all grains,” as a means to keep army personnel strong and energetic. That is because they knew what we are just beginning to appreciate: quinoa is a nutrition powerhouse. Unlike most other grains, this ancient grain boasts all the essential amino acids (including lysine, which often has a poor showing in plant-based foods), making it a complete source of protein. Read: it’s ideal for post-workout recovery. A one cup serving also supplies laudable amounts of fiber, folate, zinc, iron, manganese, phosphorus and magnesium. Magnesium is a crucial component of hundreds of biochemical reactions including normal muscle and nerve function, heart rhythm regulation, bone strengthening and immune system support. US Department of Agriculture scientists reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that subjects who had poor magnesium status were more likely to be inflicted with heart arrhythmias and poor blood glucose control. It’s likely that reliance on a fast food, convenience-fare diet (not that atypical these days) would come up short in magnesium. Lacking any gluten, quinoa can be enjoyed by those who are sensitive (i.e., Celiac disease) to this protein. If it wasn’t for a lack of vitamin C, quinoa just may be the perfect shipwrecked food.
In The Kitchen: Quinoa has a nutty, palate-pleasing taste and cooks up in only 10 to 15 minutes. Much faster than brown rice. Use a 2:1 water to grain ratio and take it off the heat when the water has soaked in and the germ unfolds like a little white tail. To intensify the flavor, try toasting quinoa in a skillet for a couple minutes over medium heat till darkened prior to boiling and add spices such as turmeric or chili powder to the cooking water. It is also best to rinse quinoa well before cooking to remove any remnants of a bitter coating called saponin.
I’D: Not all of the 60 or so species of the amaranth plant are cultivated to be eaten. Certain varieties appear as weeds, while others are used for ornamental purposes and have vibrant, kaleidoscope leaves. The seeds are diminutive oval shaped with a creamy complexion. Amaranth was a dietary staple of the Aztecs, believing it possessed supernatural powers even incorporating it into religious ceremonies. In fact, the emperor Montezuma collected it as a tax. In similar vein to quinoa, Amaranth grows in poor climatic conditions such as drought.
Nutrition Advantage: Amaranth contains an unusually good quality protein for a plant source, similar to that of buckwheat and quinoa. It also dishes out worthy amounts of iron, magnesium, calcium, copper and manganese. Giving your diet the roughage treatment, this Aztec go-to whole grain has among the highest fiber levels (more than quinoa) of any of the grains, with nine grams in one half cup uncooked. It is recommended that women and men consume 25 and 38 grams of fiber daily, respectively. All indications are that most of the population is coming well short of this. Looking up, amaranth leaves are an outstanding source of vitamin K with well over a days requirement of this bone strengthening, blood clotting vitamin in just one cup of raw leaves. Like quinoa, amaranth is a gluten-free grain.
In The Kitchen: Amaranth's earthy flavor becomes more pleasing when toasted prior to cooking. Toast in a nonstick skillet for roughly four minutes and then add one cup of grain for each two and a half cups of boiling water, cover, reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. Strongly consider adding aromatics to the cooking liquid such as ginger, herbs and spices. Make it into a breakfast cereal by using apple slices, cinnamon and nutmeg while cooking and topping with nuts and fresh berries. Amaranth flour is commonly available but needs to be mixed with other flours for baking yeast breads, as it contains no gluten. One part amaranth flour to three to four parts wheat or other grain flours is a good bet. For pancakes, only amaranth flour can be used.
I’D: Native to North America, wild rice is a seed of an aquatic grass traditionally harvested by Native people of the northern Midwest. These days, most wild rice is commercially grown and is also cultivated in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia and Southern China.
Nutrition Advantage: In addition to plenty of complex carbohydrates to help replenish muscle energy stores following a stiff workout, wild rice contains the most folate of the rice varieties. Folate is a B vitamin that, on top of helping prevent birth defects, lowers levels of homocysteine, a protein that has been linked to heart disease and cognitive decline. Adults with low levels of folate in their blood, according to researchers at the University of York in England, are 40 percent more likely to suffer from depression than those with normal stores of this B vitamin. Further, a 2007 study in the journal Circulation concluded that folate is effective at preventing strokes. Wild rice is a safe food for those allergic to gluten.
In the Kitchen: Cooked wild rice has a rich nutty smoky flavor and chew texture. The hand harvested, organically grown varieties possess the best, most complex flavors. It should be rinsed prior to cooking, which removes unwanted particles such as hulls or storage debris. For each one cup of wild rice, use roughly three cups of water and don’t expect quick results. It takes about 45 to 60 minutes for wild rice to fully cook (indicated by when the kernels begin to burst). Good things come to those who wait. Again, any sort of flavoring agents such as spices, walnuts and dried cranberries can be tossed with wild rice. Wild rice has a longer shelf life than most grains because it is dried and slightly fermented.
I’D: Ranking fourth behind wheat, rice and corn in terms of overall world cultivation, much of today's barley is used for livestock feed, to make the sweetener malt syrup or fermented to produce beer. That’s too bad because as a whole food, it’s exceptionally nutritious.
Nutrition Advantage: Like oats, barley contains a soluble fiber called beta-glucan, which is a non-starch polysaccharide that reduces blood sugar spikes and binds up cholesterol, preventing its absorption. Thus, many studies have demonstrated that higher intakes of beta-glucan can reduce overall and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels offering protection against heart disease. It just so happens that barley contains more of this cholesterol buster than oats. Plus, it trumps other whole grains with respect to selenium. It seems selenium has the ability to fend off cancer, preserve muscle strength and prevent cognitive decline. It does all this as part of proteins known as selenoproteins, which serve many vital functions such as regulating thyroid hormone activity and acting as a defense against oxidative stress induced cellular damage.
Although most barley available commercially is pearled or pot (scotch), hulled barley has only the outer husk (hull) removed and is the most nutritious form of barley, since the bran and germ are left intact. Its superior nutrient content such as more iron, thiamin and fiber makes it worth hunting down. You can tell the difference between pearled barley and “whole” barley by its lighter color and smaller size. All barley contains a small amount of gluten, so those who are sensitive need to experiment with tolerance.
In The Kitchen: Barley is an excellent addition to soups, salads, casseroles and stews. On its own, barley cooks about as fast as a tortoise with nowhere to be. Add one cup of barley to two and a half cups of boiling water, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 50 to 100 minutes. Hulled barley will need the longest to cook thoroughly. Because of it’s drawn out cooking time, it is best to rustle up big batches at a time.
I’D: Buckwheat is a seed of a plant native to northern Europe and Asia that is related to rhubarb. In Japan, buckwheat is ground into flour to make very nutritious soba noodles. Bees are particularly fond of buckwheat flowers and hence buckwheat honey that is fairly common in North America. Buckwheat groats, also called kasha, is whole grain buckwheat in which only an inedible hull is removed from the kernel.
Nutrition Advantage: Like amaranth and quinoa, buckwheat is free of gluten and contains a significant amount of the amino acid lysine, making it a fairly complete protein that will help repair and build lean body mass. There are also several valuable nutrients such as magnesium, B vitamins, copper, manganese, selenium and phosphorus. Buckwheat is also pumped full of antioxidant phytochemicals including rutin, which is not found in other whole grains. Rutin is thought to improve circulation and prevent LDL cholesterol from clogging up blood vessels. A Canadian study found that buckwheat extract was effective at lowering blood glucose in diabetic rats. The researchers surmise that the compound chiro-inositol, which is found in substantial amounts in kasha, functions to regulate blood sugar.
In the Kitchen: With a 15 minute simmer time, buckwheat is quick-cooking and versatile. It can be used in pilafs, salads, stuffings, stir fries and soups or in replace of a portion of meat in burgers and meatloaf. If you find the taste a little too overpowering on its own, try mixing some buckwheat in with other grains like rice or quinoa when serving as a side dish. On the stovetop, add one cup of buckwheat to two cups of boiling water, cover, reduce heat and simmer for roughly 15 minutes.
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