7 Alternative Grains and Seeds to Incorporate into Your Diet
Filling and simple to cook, rice is a food staple in many cultures around the world. Yet, it's just one of the many grains and seeds that are an excellent source of nutrition. mental_floss spoke with Melanie Sherman, Registered Dietician and founder of Westside Nutrition and Wellness, about the unique properties of seven often-overlooked grains and grain substitutes.
1. WILD RICE
Ready to leave white rice behind but wary of venturing too far out of your comfort zone? Wild rice (which isn't technically a rice) contains almost twice the protein of brown rice and is high in several B vitamins, manganese, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium. According to one study, it has 30 times more antioxidants than white rice. It grows in lakes, bays and tidal rivers (although most commercial rice is grown in man-made lakes); these difficult growing conditions make it more expensive than other grains.
For best results, wild rice should be soaked before cooking. “Sometimes soaking can make the grain more digestible, or change the nutrient content,” Sherman says. This will also help eliminate phytic acid, which can limit the absorption of essential minerals like iron, zinc and calcium. Although Sherman says that not all grains need to be soaked, wild rice and buckwheat benefit from it. Whether or not you choose to soak your grains, Sherman adds that every grain needs to be washed before cooking.
Amaranth is a small seed with a fine texture, making it a popular choice to add to baked goods, cereals, or porridge. According to the Whole Grains Council, its protein content is much higher than other grains at 13-14 percent, and amaranth is considered a "complete" protein because it contains the amino acid lysine (something missing in most other grains). It can be cooked by boiling it in water (for 20 minutes), but can also be toasted and sweetened for a dessert. You can also try popping amaranth like corn kernels for a popcorn substitute.
A grain with a sweet, nutty flavor, Sherman recommends cooking millet as a porridge with dried apricots. (Sweeten the porridge with apple juice instead of brown sugar for a healthy twist.) It also works well in a hot pilaf with other grains and vegetables.
Sherman says, “Millet is highly nutritious, a good source of phosphorous and magnesium as well as copper and manganese.” She also notes that because millet is a goitrogen, a type of food that can have negative health effects on your thyroid, it is wise to eat it in moderation, especially if you have any autoimmune or thyroid conditions. Millet doesn't typically serve well cold, as it tends to stick together as it dries, but it’s versatile and quick to cook (10 to 25 minutes).
Grown mainly in Ethiopia and Eritrea, teff is a good source of protein, zinc, vitamin B6, and iron, and has a great balance of amino acids (although slightly lacking in lysine). The size of a poppy seed, teff has a notably high amount of calcium — about 123 mg per cup, the same amount found in 1/2 cup of spinach. The fine grains are ground into a flour and then fermented to make the flat crepe-like bread called injera (a traditional Ethiopian dish), on which hot foods like vegetables and meat are served.
Wheatberry goes great with green vegetables or in a sweet salad with cranberries, orange, and cheese. It contains all the elements of a whole wheat kernel: the bran, germ, and endosperm, which provide a wider spectrum of nutrients than do processed grains like white rice (which has the bran and germ stripped for a greater shelf life). Wheatberry is also a good source of iron and fiber.
Wheatberry takes about 50 minutes to cook, relatively longer than most grains, but if you make a whole batch it will keep throughout the week (it's also great cold). You can also experiment with the flavor by toasting the wheat berries before cooking; just heat them in the pot before adding water.
You've likely seen quinoa on restaurant menus, but might not have tried cooking it at home—which is a shame, because the fluffy seed only takes about 10 to 15 minutes to cook.
“It is exceptionally high in protein, fiber, and is low on the glycemic index," Sherman says of quinoa. "It is also a great source of many nutrients including manganese, copper, phosphorous and magnesium.” She also notes that quinoa has a protective coating made of chemical compounds called saponins, which can cause a bitter taste. To prevent this, it should be washed under running water while rubbing the grain to remove any remaining bitterness. (Although most quinoa sold today is pre-treated to remove the saponin, many still like washing it just to make sure.)
Though it's a seed, buckwheat is treated like a grain in a culinary sense.You could cook the buckwheat as a hot cereal for breakfast, or grind it into flour to make pancakes or crepes. The toasted version is used for kasha varnishkes, a traditional Eastern European dish of pasta noodles, kasha (toasted buckwheat), and onions.
“Buckwheat has similar health benefits to whole grains in that it’s high in fiber and vitamins and minerals," Sherman says. "It’s great in terms of cholesterol management, and blood sugar control.” Plus, it's easy to cook—it takes just 20 minutes.