Editor’s note: This article originally was published April 6, 2009. It has been updated for accuracy.
Quinoa, amaranth, millet, spelt: These grains may be new to most Americans, but some cultures have eaten, and revered, them for thousands of years.
In their whole form, ancient and alternative grains, in addition to familiar grains such as wheat, oats, rice and corn, are slowly gaining a foothold in the American diet, providing significant health benefits and improving carbohydrates’ image.
During the past century, manufacturing processes that have made common grains easier to cook, eat and store also have stripped them of nutrition. Overconsumption of these refined products has contributed to weight gain, Type 2 diabetes and other health problems in our society.
“That’s where we lost the connection between the basic grain and what we eat today,” said Roberta Gill, dietician at the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.
Instead of eliminating grains altogether, more people are being selective about what they eat, opting for products made with all the beneficial parts of grains and including whole grains in recipes.
As a result, older adults and other Americans are getting many essential nutrients help lower cholesterol and risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and possibly some cancers.
Whole grains also are a great source of fiber and help prevent digestive problems.
“There are a lot of good reasons for including them in your diet,” Gill said.
Getting to know grains
Familiar grains such as wheat, corn, rice, rye and oats, in addition to barley, millet, sorghum and spelt (a type of wheat) are considered cereal grains because they come from grass plants.
Amaranth, quinoa, flaxseed and buckwheat are considered alternative grains because they come from different kinds of plants and, technically, are not grains.
Gluten-free grains for people who have celiac disease or are intolerant of wheat include rice, amaranth, quinoa, millet and buckwheat.
A whole grain is the entire seed of the plant, made up of the bran, germ and endosperm.
Refining typically removes the bran and germ, the most nutritious parts of the kernel containing protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and healthy fats.
Refined wheat, for example, contains almost no fiber or vitamin E and only half of the kernel’s B vitamins, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
Without the bran and germ, the starch from grains is digested quickly, causing a spike in blood sugar. While products made with refined grains often are enriched with vitamins, they are never as beneficial as the original whole grain, Gill said.
In their whole form, grains are super foods because they contain protein, carbohydrates, beneficial fats, vitamins and minerals, she said.
Quinoa, which is native to South America and was a main part of the Inca diet, is known as the “mother of all grains” because it contains amino acids that make it a “complete protein.”
“I don’t know of any other plant foods that are a complete protein,” Gill said.
Finding, cooking, eating
The 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend Americans get half of their grains from whole grains.
Individuals ages 9 and older should get at least three “ounce-equivalents,” or servings, of whole grains daily. A serving can be a half-cup of cooked grains, cereal or pasta, or a slice of bread, for example.
Whole grains can be processed (cracked, split or ground) and still be beneficial, as long as the most important parts of the kernel remain in the product. Some products may mix whole grains with refined grains.
The key is to read labels carefully, look for whole grains as one of the first ingredients in a product and not rely on advertising, Gill said.
“It’s not (the producers’) job to educate you, it’s your job to educate you,” she said.
Whole grains should be one of the first ingredients in a product. To make the search easier, the Whole Grains Council created a Whole Grains stamp, which appears on many products containing at least a half serving, or 8 grams, of whole grains.
Many alternative and ancient grains can be purchased in bulk at health food stores such as Bamboo Market in Steamboat Springs. Packaged versions, though usually more expensive, are becoming more common in grocery stores. They usually are found near the rice or gourmet rice sections.
Cooking time for whole grains ranges from about five minutes to two hours. It’s important to rinse all grains before cooking to remove debris or residue (quinoa’s residue can make it taste bitter).
Alternative and ancient grains typically have a nutty or distinctive flavor that is more intense that the taste of common grains.
Meat, vegetables, fresh or dried fruit, nuts and seeds, herbs, citrus juice or vinegar, olive oil and honey are among foods that liven up the flavor of plain grains and are found in many whole grain recipes.
The Whole Grains Council suggests using whole grains such as barley, brown rice, millet and quinoa in risottos, pilafs and other rice-like dishes or adding them to soups. Add some oats to ground beef or yogurt for a quick source of fiber or eat popcorn (amaranth also can be popped) instead of potato chips and other less healthy snacks.
Less adventurous individuals easily can incorporate whole grains into their diets by opting for whole grain bread, crackers and cereals or using whole grain rice, pasta, flour and meal, which they also can mix with refined versions.
This article includes information from “Healthy Eating: Tips for a Healthy Diet,” at www.helpguide.org, the Harvard School of Public Health www.hsph.harvard.edu and “Ancient and Alternative Grains,” from Today’s Dietician.
— Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults 50 and older. For more information, visit www.agingwelltoday.com or call 871-7676.