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The Search for the Greatest Grains

By on December 20, 2017
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Health experts far and wide sing the praises of whole grains and with good reason. As nutrient-dense foods, grains are the fruit or seed of an edible cereal. These tiny little packages need to supply a growing plant with the necessities for life until they can start producing their own nutrients by using water, the minerals from the soil and by photosynthesis.

Lectin and gluten fears aside, whole grains can be part of a healthy diet; they are packed with carbs for energy, protein for growth and repair, vitamins, minerals and loads of phytonutrients – plant compounds which help to promote health by turning on disease-fighting genes.

Luckily there is no shortage of different grains to choose from nor is there a shortage of ways to prepare them. Variety is the spice of life, so don’t be afraid to get a little creative in the kitchen.

Whole grains can be added to soups and stews; they can also be cooked into different types of hot cereals or porridges. Cooled, cooked grains make a great base for salads or they can be added to a green salad as a topping. Instead of rice as the go-to grain for rice pudding, try an alternate for a fun change. A small portion of a cooled, cooked grain can also be added to smoothies and protein shakes for added smoothness and to up the nutritional oomph.

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1) Teff

Teff, a staple in Ethiopia and Eritrea, is gaining ground in Canada. Fifteen years ago, none of my clients had heard of it but today, that’s changing. Teff is a very tiny grain, similar in size to poppy seeds. Teff is a heavy hitter when it comes to calcium; a one-half cup has 123 mg or about the same as a half cup of spinach. Teff is also rich in magnesium; 126 mg for the same half cup measure. It also boasts an impressive amount of protein, fiber, potassium and is gluten-free. Teff has the advantage of cooking quickly making it easy to prepare.

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2) Barley

Barley is an underrated grain. When asked, most clients say they occasionally eat barely as part of beef and barley soup which is great but there are so many different ways to include barley. Barley can be enjoyed as a cooked whole grain or it can be milled and cut like oats and turned into barley grits or steel-cut barley, both of which can be used to make a porridge. Like wheat, barley can also be milled into flour and used in baking so sneaking in barley goodness is easy. Barley of course can be served hot like rice or pilaf or it makes a great base for a cold salad.

Of all the whole grains, barley is highest in fiber with common varieties being 17% of fiber by weight while some varieties such as Prowashonupana having up to 30% fiber. Barley is high in antioxidants and phytonutrients and minerals; for only 193 calories, one cup of cooked barley has 2 mg iron, 146 mg potassium, 1.3 mg zinc and 44 g of energy-rich carbohydrate.

Somewhat unique to barley is its beta-glucan content, a type of soluble fiber known for its ability to balance blood lipids such as cholesterol and triglycerides,. Beta glucan is a great ally for blood sugar balance too which is important in the prevention and management of Type 2 diabetes.

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3) Wild Rice

Many may be surprised to learn that wild rice is a native grass to North America originally found in and around the upper Great Lakes. Per one cup serving, wild rice boasts a decent amount of protein (6.5 g) and is a good source of fiber (3 g), vitamin B3 and zinc. Due to its dark colour which it gets from specific pigments, wild rice is rich in health-promoting antioxidants and phytonutrients. Wild rice takes a longer to cook; when the rice bursts open, it’s done.

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4) Sorghum

Sorghum is an ancient grain dating back 8000 years ago in southern Egypt and later domesticated in Ethiopia and Sudan. There are several varieties so you may have seen different coloured kernels ranging from white or pale yellow to deep reds, purples and browns all listed as sorghum. Because it’s gluten-free, sorghum has become a central grain in the gluten-free food products.

Sorghum is a multi-tasker when it comes to nutrition. It is high in phytonutrients and antioxidants which are believed to lower the risk of several cancers, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and neurological diseases like dementia. One-half cup of cooked sorghum has 5 g protein, 3 g fiber, and is rich in minerals: 1.6 g iron, 80 mg magnesium, 138 mg phosphorus and 174 mg of potassium and several B vitamins.

Unique to sorghum is the waxy/oily coating around the kernel that contains compounds called policosanols which some research has shown may balance blood lipids (triglycerides, LDL, HDL and total cholesterol) which may help to reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease.

There are few ways to incorporate the benefits of sorghum including cooking the whole grains like you would any other grain for side dishes, added to stews and soups or into a hot cereal or sorghum porridge. You can also buy sorghum flour for baking which can be used to make gluten-free foods or the flour can be mixed with wheat flour to up the nutrition.

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5) Amaranth

Another ancient grain, amaranth has a long culinary history in Mexico and is considered a native crop of Peru and was a major crop of the Aztecs some 6000-8000 years ago. Amaranth, like all whole grains, is rich in the usual suspects of nutrients such as 4.6 g protein, 22 g carbohydrate, 2.5 g fiber, 166 mg potassium, 2.6 mg iron and 80 mg magnesium and only 125 calories per one-half cup.

Cooking amaranth is easy; use a ratio of 3 to 4:1 water to grain and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes. Cooked amaranth will not lose its crunch completely so don’t let that fact fool you into thinking it’s not done. The inner kernel will soften while the outer remains firm; cooked amaranth will ‘pop’ when you chew them. You can use cooked amaranth as you would use any other grain to make a pilaf or spread out cooked amaranth on a cookie sheet, let dry and add as a topping on salads, soups or stews.

Doug Cook, RD, MPH is an Integrative & Functional Nutritionist and Dietitian. He is the coauthor of “Nutrition for Canadians for Dummies” (Wiley, 2008), “The Complete Leaky Gut Health & Diet Book” (Robert Rose, 2015) and “175 Best Superfood Blender Recipes” (Robert Rose, 2017). Visit: www.dougcookrd.com.

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