“Whole grains” have become a marketing buzzword for products like cereal, bread and crackers. Stroll down the supermarket aisles and you’ll find hundreds of products that claim to be “Made with whole grains!”
Why all this hubbub about whole grains? Whole grains are a great source of minerals (such as manganese and iron), fiber and protein. Numerous studies have found that people who consume whole grains have lowered their blood glucose and fasting insulin levels, reduced the risk of heart disease, and lowered their blood pressure.
Consumers have heard about this, and are attempting to increase their whole grain intake. Companies are aware of this trend, and have capitalized on it. Food labeling laws are complicated and slippery, and there are all sorts of loopholes concerning what a company can say about its food.
For instance, we have things like this now:
Wikipedia definition of whole grains: cereal grains that contain cereal germ,endosperm, and bran, in contrast to refined grains, which retain only the endosperm. (FYI, ‘cereal’ refers to the type of grass, not Frosted Flakes.)
Refined grains (think white rice, white flour) contain only the endosperm – which is basically just a starch, or simple carbohydrate. All the nutrients – minerals, vitamins, fiber – are in the outer layers. Also, only a whole grain is a whole grain – breakfast cereal is not a whole grain. Neither is a piece of bread. Here’s a great article on how to decipher label claims and identify true whole grains.
Some examples of whole grains are: oats, rice, quinoa, millet, teff, amaranth, kamut, buckwheat, spelt, barley, and rye.*
I’m going to assume you know what rice, oats and barley look like, and that you’ve consumed them at some point in your adult life. Below, I’ll highlight some others that might be less familiar.
Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is a South American grain, used in traditional Aztec diets. Quinoa is technically a seed, not a grain. It’s little and round, and there are white and red varieties. When cooked, it’s fluffy and has a nutty flavor. It’s an excellent “gateway” grain for those of you who only know rice. It’s easier to prepare than rice, and incredibly versatile. You can use it as a straight-up substitute for rice in stir-frys and side dishes, but you can also find infinite preparations for quinoa salads, casseroles and soups. I use it in my famous Fake Squash Casserole, and Matthew and I really like this recipe for Quinoa Chili.
Millet is another delicious alternative – I use it for my breakfast cereal. Millet looks a lot like quinoa, but it’s more yellow in color, and slightly larger. When cooked, it has a tougher texture – it doesn’t fluff up like rice or quinoa – and tastes more like corn than rice.
Teff is an African grain, and if any of you have tried Ethiopian food, you are familiar with the soft, sour bread made from it. Teff is almost always fermented in traditional preparations, which gives it that sour flavor. For you gluten-free folks, you can find teff flour at your local natural foods store.
Buckwheat hails from Russia. Even though it has the word “wheat” in its name, it does not contain gluten.
Kasha is buckwheat that’s been roasted. Raw buckwheat has a very distinct, earthy and unusual flavor, and I admit I haven’t experimented with it very much. Kasha is more nutty and rich, and has a more palatable texture. Mostly I use buckwheat in the form of flour – for my gluten free waffles and pancakes.
Many traditional diets rely on whole grains as a staple – but their preparation methods are a little different than ours. Most traditional grain dishes are soaked, sprouted or fermented first, and cooked low and slow for a long time.
How to prepare grains
Soaking, sprouting and fermenting all serve to increase the availability of the nutrients in grains, and make them easier to digest. Many grains contain phytic acid – a compound which binds to certain minerals (especially zinc and iron), thereby making them unavailable to us when eaten. Soaking removes most of the phytic acid. Most grains should be soaked overnight in filtered water. Before cooking, drain and rinse, and cook in fresh water.
Once your grains have soaked overnight (or for at least six hours), you can rinse them and prepare them as usual – most grains require two parts liquid to one part grain. You can cook them in filtered water, broth, or whatever your recipe calls for.
You might find that you prefer to dry the grains before cooking them. You can do this by spreading them out on a greased baking sheet and roasting at 350 degrees, tossing frequently, until all the water has evaporated.
Personally, I use a rice cooker. Some traditionalists claim that this cooks the grain too quickly – but hey, this is the 21st century, and I’m busy. I do my best. But I always soak my grains – I feel lighter and less bloated when I do.
Kitchen tip: Make a big batch of grains at once – I like to cook two dry cups of millet or quinoa, which yields about four cups cooked. This amount lasts two adults about five days, depending on how much hot cereal I eat that week.
My millet cereal: Combine about 1/2 cup cooked millet in a saucepan with almond milk, tahini, cinnamon, and a pinch of salt. Simmer until thick and creamy. Top with berries, nuts, sunflower seeds or whatever else you like. This also works with quinoa, but millet is richer and more hearty.
Fermenting just means adding some acidic element to the soaking process, and using warm water instead of cool. You can do this by adding a couple tablespoons of yogurt, lemon juice, buttermilk, and certain types of vinegar. For more information, visit Nourishing Days, Whole Health Source, or check out this article that lays out a very simple method.
Sprouting a grain involves soaking overnight, draining and rinsing frequently over 2-3 days until the grains grow little sprouts. This process dramatically increases the availability of nutrients and digestibility. Sprouted grains can be dehydrated and ground up to make flour, which is the most common use for them. You can also use them in any other grain preparation. Once a grain has been sprouted, it requires no additional soaking. For a great tutorial on how to do this, visit this post I found – she’s using wheatberries, but the process is the same for any grain. You can also sprout beans and seeds.
*If you have a gluten sensitivity, you should avoid wheat, barley, spelt and rye. Oats might also be a problem for you, since they are commonly stored and processed in facilities that produce wheat as well – making cross-contamination unavoidable.
Remember to contact me with any questions, and be sure to come to my Wednesday night class at Asheville Family Fitness, where you’ll learn more about topics like this.