Ah, to hear those words uttered together…whole grain plus goodness! It wasn’t long ago, you probably recall, that CARBOHYDRATES became the latest “four letter word” of the nutritional world. As often happens with extreme dietary trends like the zero carb frenzy of a few years back, we weren’t really getting the whole story. It turns out that, despite their tarnished reputation, whole grains are among the healthiest, most nutrient dense foods on earth when eaten in sensible quantities as part of an overall healthy diet. Try for 3-5 servings of whole grains per day…and remember: a serving is about Â½ cup cooked grains!
ANATOMY OF A WHOLE GRAIN…
Bran-high in fiber, B vitamins, trace minerals like selenium, potassium, magnesium, iron, and zinc
Germ-(the embryo of the seed) contains B vitamins, vitamin E, essential fatty acids, phytonutrients, unsaturated fats
Endosperm-(the germ’s food supply) – contains protein, B vitamins
These little bundles of nutrition slow digestion (thanks to all that fiber!), help to maintain even blood sugar and keep you feeling full and satisfied, lower total and LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, regulate insulin, decrease risk of type 2 diabetes, decrease risk of cardiovascular disease, and provide protection against colorectal cancers. As if that’s not enough, the vitamins and minerals in the germ and bran are essential to catalyze the conversion of all those starches into ENERGY!!
What about refined grains? These grain products have been stripped of the germ and bran where the vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and fiber are concentrated (kind of like swallowing your vitamin capsule after dumping out the stuff inside!). What’s left over is basically starch that is rapidly digested and converted into blood sugar. Eating too many refined grains can create an energy roller coaster that leaves you feeling tired, hungry, and irritable!
As with many products, the variety of grains available in local markets has expanded significantly over the past decade. Each grain has unique characteristics of flavor, nutritional content and cooking uses so it pays to experiment with different grains and cooking styles.
FAST- COOKING GRAINS
These grains generally cook in under 30 minutes, making them a fast and easy addition to your cooking routine.
Millet: A dietary staple throughout most of the world, millet is gluten-free, delicately flavored and textured and extremely high in heart and bone healthy magnesium and phosphorus. If you’re willing to go the extra mile, toasting millet in a dry skillet before cooking brings out its nutty flavor.
Oats: A very popular grain in the U.S., oats are available in a variety of forms, from oat berries (groats) to steel cut oats, to more finely cut rolled oats. All are considered whole grains and have been touted as heart healthy, cholesterol lowering wonder foods.
Quinoa (KEEN-wah): This fast cooking grain is loaded with protein (one of only a few grains considered to be a whole protein), fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Earthy in flavor and creamy, yet crunchy in texture, quinoa requires rinsing before cooking to remove the bitter tasting saponin coating.
Teff: A staple grain of Ethiopia, teff is an especially rich source of iron. Toasting before cooking enhances the flavor of this mighty grain.
Amaranth: This extremely tiny and flavorful grain (actually a seed), packs a major nutritional punch. Amaranth is an excellent source of protein. The tiny seeds, closer in taste to quinoa than to true grains like wheat and oats, makes a great addition to breads, pancakes, and tart crusts.
These grains take a while to cook, but they can be prepared in advance and stored for use during the week. Don’t shy away from them!
Barley: Using lightly pearled barley (only a bit of the nutrient dense bran coating is pearled or buffed off) greatly reduces cooking time. The more the grain is pearled, the faster it will cook, but the less nutritious it will be! Barley is an especially good source of soluble fiber, including beta-glucan, which helps decrease cholesterol and support digestive health. Barley makes an excellent base for risottos and stews, since the grain absorbs flavors readily and acts as a thickening ingredient.
Farro: An ancient grain popular in Italy, farro has an impressive nutritional profile as well as a delicious chewy texture and nutty flavor. Try farro in risotto-style recipes, and as the base for salads.
Kamut: This high protein grain does contain gluten, but appears to be well tolerated by many gluten sensitive people.
Spelt: This nutrient dense grain, readily found in grocery and specialty stores, has a deep, nutlike flavor.
Wheat Berry: Available as hard red winter wheat berries or as lower-protein soft wheat berries, all wheat berries are nutritionally whole or intact. Soft wheat berries, with their plump, chewy grains, make a great base for salads, soups, or side dishes. They take a long time to cook, but they’re well worth the wait!
Cracked Wheat: The grain that makes tabbouleh so delicious is really just wheat berries that are “cracked” or ground between rollers. Still nutritionally intact, this grain is much faster cooking than its whole wheat berries and lends itself to many preparations, from salads to side dishes to hot cereals.
Wild Rice: Not really rice at all, wild rice is actually an aquatic grass with a hearty texture and a distinct earthy flavor. Wild rice is an excellent source of protein, iron, and B vitamins and a great addition to salads, soups, and pilafs.
If you haven’t tried any of the grains above, you’re missing out!! Follow the package directions for preparation, store the cooked grains in a sealed container in the refrigerator, and check out some of the amazing grain salads in