In the wild, wheat, corn, and rice plants used to be scattered across meadows and marshes, bearing varied, rich-colored seeds. Today, their domesticated versions are intensely cultivated cash crops that produce mountains of beige food. From the standpoint of economically filling bellies, they’re a success. But there can be unexpected consequences when dietary variety is exchanged for industrial consistency.
In the 1960s, for example, researchers thought a new genetic defect was the reason for the thousands of healthy housecats that were going blind. It turned out to be a deficiency of the amino acid taurine. Pet food, which was still a relatively new phenomenon, had replaced their typical diet of table scraps, and nobody knew cats needed taurine to keep their retinas from degenerating. The blindness was permanent.
The modern Western diet isn’t boring kibble, but dietary staples do tend to limit variety by occupying space on virtually every plate. Eating largely the same stuff in a category as large as “grains” can allow holes to develop in our individual nutritional profiles, especially since metabolically speaking we’re not carbon copies of each other. Your nutritional needs might be somewhat different from mine and from what’s recommended on a government food pyramid. Different foods carry their own sets of nutrients and bioactives, which perform specific functions in specific tissues and cells of individual bodies. Dietary variety can fill the hidden nutritional holes caused by dietary ruts.
So why not break out of this rut by trying new and interesting grains? Here are some of the best options, providing many vitamins, fiber, protein, and other important nutrients.
Gaining traction in the modern Western diet, quinoa has about the same fiber content, considerably more minerals, and more protein than whole wheat. Even better, its protein is complete, meaning it includes all nine of the essential amino acids (the ones the human body can’t synthesize). Even in beige quinoa, the polyphenol content is outstanding compared to the common grains, and the polyphenols are even more abundant in its red and black varieties. Note: The outsides of quinoa’s seeds contain compounds called saponins, which naturally repel bugs. The threshing process removes the saponins, but residuals can leave a slightly bitter taste. Soaking quinoa before cooking restores its natural sweetness.
Amaranth seeds have the highest protein content of the whole grains, and it’s also a complete protein. The oil in amaranth is rich in squalene, an oil also found in shark liver and olive oil. Studies show squalene reduces cholesterol and triglyceride levels, has anti-cancer properties, and is one of the bioactives believed to contribute to the Mediterranean diet’s documented health benefits.
Another great source of complete protein, buckwheat is also considered one of the best “grain” sources of polyphenols, including one uniquely abundant in buckwheat called rutin. Rutin has been shown to strengthen fragile capillaries and reduce high blood pressure and arterial plaque formation. Buckwheat is also rich in phytosterols, which have antiviral and antitumor properties and inhibit intestinal absorption of cholesterol, resulting in lower blood LDL and total cholesterol levels. And, buckwheat contains a soluble fiber called fagopyritol that helps control blood glucose levels.
“Forbidden” Black Rice
The original wild form of rice was red, thanks to anthocyanidin pigments produced by the rice plant. These pigments are known for their powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular, and brain-function benefits. Black rice resulted from a genetic mutation that caused the plant to biosynthesize so much more pigment that the grain looks black. (White rice’s mutation prevents pigment biosynthesis.)
The rarity of black rice gave it a certain caché in ancient Japan and led to it being forbidden for anybody except the emperor to eat it. Its protein content, though not complete, is significantly higher than brown or red rice’s. Despite having nearly twice as much fiber, it has a soft texture after cooking and a nutty flavor, making it a healthy comfort food.
Hempseed (or Hemp Hearts)
In addition to having a nutritional profile similar to that of quinoa, the oil in hemp seed has been studied as a nutraceutical for patients with multiple sclerosis (MS). In a double blind, randomized trial of 100 patients with relapsing-remitting MS, the groups receiving combined hemp seed and evening primrose oils showed significant improvement in disability symptoms as well as increased activity of an enzyme (FADS6) that helps the body produce the anti-inflammatory omega-3 EPA (eicosapentanoic acid). There also is evidence that dietary hempseed benefits cardiovascular health.
Hailing originally from Ethiopia, teff has more protein than whole wheat, it’s a complete protein, and it consists largely of albumin (like egg white), which is easily digested and highly absorbed into circulation. Teff is also an excellent source of vitamin C—unusual for a grain. And, in addition to having lots of calcium and other minerals, it offers easily absorbed iron. Teff also is rich in a resistant starch that has weight-loss and glycemic benefits.
I encourage you to let ancient grains bring a little culinary history, nutritional diversity, and interest to your kitchen. All these grains are widely available at health food and specialty food stores, and you can find cooking tips and recipes online. Most sources highly recommend soaking grains for at least an hour (or overnight), then draining and rewetting for cooking. Soaking optimizes digestibility and nutrient value, and shortens cooking time. (You’ll need a fine sieve to drain teff.)