Are You Neglecting Traditional Grains?

January 08, 2013

Looking to add more variety to your grains? Here you'll find information on a handful of traditional, alternative grains

Speaking at the “Crops for the 21st Century” seminar held last month in Córdoba, Spain, The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) director-general José Graziano da Silva urged greater use of neglected traditional grains, saying that there is global over-reliance on just a handful of staple foods. Graziano da Silva went on to say, “our dependence on a few crops has negative consequences for ecosystems, food diversity and our health. The food monotony increases the risk of micronutrient deficiency.”  The FAO estimates that approximately 7,000 different crops have been grown and consumed throughout human history, but today more of these crops have begun to disappear.

So what are some of the “neglected” traditional grains (and seeds) that the FAO is talking about? Some examples include quinoa, sorghum, amaranth, teff, buckwheat, millet, and einkorn.

Amaranth dates back hundreds of years (similar to quinoa) to the Aztecs in Mexico. It contains a high quality protein and is high in fiber. Amaranth has a nutty flavor and is being used with other alternative flours in breads, pasta, pancakes as well as being consumed on its own. It boasts a superb nutritional profile and is a great source of calcium, iron, manganese and folate.

Buckwheat is another fabulous ancient seed, and is not in fact related to wheat at all! It has a mild flavor, but roasted or toasted, the flavor intensifies. Buckwheat can be ground into a flour like consistency and substituted for wheat flour. Buckwheat contains various flavonoids that provide powerful antioxidant protection against free radicals in the body. It is also a great source of fiber, manganese, magnesium, zinc and iron.

Millet is also considered an ancient grain, possibly the first cereal grain to be used for domestic purposes. Across the globe millet is still used today in various ways, in India flat thin cakes called roti are often made from millet flour, the Hunzas who live in the Himalayans use millet as a cereal, in soups and for making the whole grain bread chapatti. Millet is highly nutritious and in fact, it is considered to be one of the least allergenic and easily digestible grains available. It is nearly 15 percent protein, contains high amounts of fiber, B vitamins and vitamin E; and is particularly high in the minerals iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium.

Quinoa an “ancient grain” (it’s actually a seed) was originally cultivated thousands of years ago in the South American Andes and known as “the gold of the Incas,” and the “mother of all grains.” Quinoa is a very good source of magnesium, iron, and boasts a whole host of other nutrients and bioactive compounds as well as fiber. Quinoa can be ground into flour and used for baked goods or used in its whole form in place of couscous, rice or other grains in recipes.

Sorghum is America’s third leading cereal crop, and in many parts of the world sorghum has traditionally been used in porridge, unleavened bread, cookies, cakes, and couscous. Sorghum is rich in antioxidants, and is a good source of iron, fiber and protein.

You may not have heard of teff, but it’s an ancient North African cereal grass and is a nutritional knockout. It is said to be the smallest grain in the world - about 100 grains are the size of one kernel of wheat. Teff contains high levels of calcium, phosphorous, iron, and thiamin and is also a great source of protein. Teff has a mild, nutty, and a slight molasses-like sweetness.

Einkorn is considered “man’s first form of cultivated wheat” grown by farmers more than 10,000 years ago! Einkorn contains more protein, as well as higher levels of essential fatty acids, phosphorous, potassium, vitamin B6, lutein, and beta-carotene as compared to today’s wheat.

By no means does this list include all of the alternative grains – but does contain some of the most popular. If you are specifically looking for gluten free grains, be sure to read labels to make sure cross contamination is not an issue. Einkorn is not gluten free.

Many of the wheat alternatives mentioned above are actually whole grains, which contain all the essential parts and naturally occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed. They provide fiber, vitamin E, and minerals such as iron, zinc and magnesium. The outer skin of the seed contains B vitamins, antioxidants and fiber-rich bran; the germ holds the protein, minerals and healthy fats; and the endosperm (the main part of the grain between the bran and the germ) contains protein, carbohydrates and smaller quantities of vitamins and minerals. The bran and germ contain 25 percent of the protein in whole grains and the majority of the nutrients. When highly processed, these valuable nutrients and proteins are lost - not to mention healthful fiber.