whole grains

Your guide to healthy grains

By Sue Mah

The other night, I was out for dinner with my husband at a neighbourhood restaurant. The waitress was describing the daily feature – a grilled salmon with lemon caper aioli, served over a bed of citrus quinoa salad with a side of seasonal local veggies. “You had me at quinoa,” I exclaimed, and enthusiastically ordered the feature dish. My husband, on the other hand, said to the waitress, “You lost me at quinoa.”

Despite quinoa’s superfood status, not everyone is a fan of this nutritious grain. Luckily, there are over a dozen other grains to experiment with on your menus. Whole grains — which include all three parts of the seed (the bran, endosperm and germ) — are especially powerful because they are linked to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some types of cancers. Here’s your A to Z guide to healthy grains and how you can include them on your menus.

Amaranth – is a gluten-free whole grain filled with iron and magnesium. It is also one of the few plant-based foods considered a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids that we need to get from food. That’s a big bonus for your patrons who are looking for a healthy vegetarian meal. With a strong, nutty flavour, amaranth can be used in soups, salads and crusts for chicken or fish.

Barley – contains a special type of fibre called beta-glucan that is famous for its health halo. According to Health Canada, barley fibre helps lower blood cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease. Pot barley has slightly more fibre than pearled barley. To deepen its nutty flavour, try toasting barley before cooking it. Add it to soups, salads and risottos.

Brown rice – is the nuttier tasting whole-grain sibling of white rice. With more fibre and B-vitamins, brown rice can be substituted in dishes that are traditionally made with white rice. All rice is gluten-free. Parboiled brown rice is a faster option if you’re short on cooking time.

Buckwheat – don’t be confused by its name. Buckwheat is not actually related to the wheat family so it is gluten-free. It boasts an impressive protein content along with zinc and magnesium. Use buckwheat to give pancakes and pilaf dishes an earthy flavour. Experiment with kasha (toasted buckwheat) or soba (buckwheat) noodles.

Bulgur – is actually cracked wheat that has been parboiled, dried and broken into smaller granules. A staple in Middle Eastern cuisine, bulgur is a whole grain and traditionally used in tabbouleh.

Corn – is a gluten-free whole grain that’s packed with fibre and potassium. Be creative with corn flour and cornmeal. Think corn cakes, corn bread, polenta, tortillas and tacos.

Farro – was a staple grain among the ancient Greeks and Romans. It’s an ancient type of wheat with a nutty taste and chewy, firm texture. Farro is well suited for soups, salads and pilafs.

Freekeh – is actually young green wheat that has been toasted and cracked. It’s a trendy whole grain and cooks similarly to bulgur. Like many whole grains, freekeh offers a good supply of fibre and B vitamins. With a crunchy, nutty taste, it can be used in salads and side dishes.

Kamut – is a type of wheat that is two to three times bigger than regular wheat. It’s a whole grain with a rich, buttery flavour. Kamut works nicely in casseroles and pilafs.

Millet – is a small, gluten-free grain that’s commonly used in African cuisine. It’s available in white, grey, yellow or red varieties. With a mild flavour and fluffy texture, millet can be used in a variety of dishes from soups to stews.

Oats – are loaded with soluble fibre, the type of fibre that’s been shown to help reduce blood cholesterol levels. Beyond using oats on your breakfast menu, try using this versatile grain in desserts or as a binding agent in meatballs, burgers or meatloaf.

Quinoa – is a gluten-free, whole grain that’s hailed for its protein content. In fact, just like amaranth, quinoa is a complete protein. The quinoa plant actually belongs to the same family as Swiss chard and spinach, which may explain its slightly bitter taste. Quinoa-anything is on trend these days. If you want to stay on the cutting edge of food trends though, try kañiwa (pronounced kah-nyee-wah) which is a cousin of quinoa but without the bitter outer coating.

Sorghum – has seen the highest growth on U.S. restaurant menus last year, according to statistics from Dataessential’s Menu Trends Report. As a gluten-free option, sorghum contains more protein than most other whole grains. Sorghum flour is light in colour, making it a good ingredient for muffins, breads, cakes, cookies and pizza crusts.

Spelt – is nutritionally very similar to wheat. With a slightly nutty taste, spelt requires overnight soaking before cooking. Spelt flour can be used in pastas, crackers and breads.

Teff – grows in three different colours – red, white and brown. It’s a tiny, sand-like whole grain. Teff is a calcium and iron superstar compared to other grains. When cooked, it has a creamy consistency and sweet, molasses-like flavour. Try it as a cooked porridge or use it to thicken soups and stews. Teff breads and tortillas are also available for those following a gluten-free diet.

Wheat berries – are whole wheat kernels with a nutty taste. They usually require overnight soaking. Wheat berries are a great side dish or breakfast cereal.

Whole rye – is a gluten-containing grain and typically used to make breads. Some sandwiches just taste better on fresh rye bread!

Wild rice – is actually the seed of a grass and contains more protein than most grains. Try combining it with brown rice or white rice in pilaf, or add to soups and salads.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat (including spelt, kamut, and farro), rye and barley. Gluten in flour helps bread and other baked goods bind and prevents crumbling. Celiac disease is a condition in which the small intestines are damaged by gluten. Statistics from the Canadian Celiac Association estimate that about one per cent of Canadians are affected by celiac disease, and they must follow a gluten-free diet. Another estimated six per cent of the population may have a condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity and they too are avoiding gluten.

Gluten-free grains

  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Corn
  • Millet
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Rice
  • Sorghum
  • Teff
  • Wild rice

About the author:

Sue Mah, MHSc., RD, is a Registered Dietitian and President of Nutrition Solutions Inc., a company specializing in creative communications for health and wellness. She is a recognized media spokesperson and consultant to national and international food companies, working with marketing teams, advertising agencies and PR firms to develop nutrition strategies, educational campaigns. As Co-Founder of the training and consulting program NutritionForNonNutritionists.com, Sue is a nutrition trends expert and dynamic speaker. And as a chef’s daughter, Sue loves delicious, wholesome food! For assistance with your menus and promotions, contact Sue at www.NutritionSolutions.ca or Twitter @SueMahRD.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *