If you were asked to make a list of edible grains, what would you come up with? If corn, wheat, and oats made up the sum total of your list, perhaps it is time to expand your horizons. Let us introduce you to some tinier distant cousins of your favorite grains. These small grains are not only tasty, but offer some high quality nutrition, and the advantage of being gluten-free, a big concern for those with gluten intolerance.
This cultivar of the Andes Mountains in South America (Peru, Bolivia, and Chile), is commonly used as a grain, even though it is actually in the same family as beets and spinach. Commonly called a pseudo-grain in more scientific circles, Quinoa is traditionally known as Inca rice or “vegetable caviar.”
Quinoa is a rare exception in the plant world, because it contains all eight of the amino acids considered essential, and therefore a complete protein. In addition, quinoa boasts high quality fat content, with approximately 25% of its fat being a healthy monounsaturated fat commonly found in olive oil: oleic acid (Omega-9). Quinoa’s nutrition lineup includes polyphenols, flavonoids, and phytosterols, and Vitamin E, all of which indicated quinoa consumption may help to reduce inflammation. Scientists have pointed to the quinoa as a possible antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer food that may also help reduce cholesterol and reduce risk of diabetes. With all these promising benefits, quinoa certainly brings a lot of value to the table.
Another quasi-grain, Amaranth hails from a little north of Quinoa: Central America. Evidently it was highly prized among the Aztecs until it was banned by Cortez as part of a “heathen” practice. However, amaranth is making a comeback today due to its high nutrition content. Like quinoa, amaranth is considered to be a complete protein. In fact, amaranth is 13 to 14% protein. In addition, this tiny treasure contains 298 milligrams of calcium per cup (raw), compared to white rice’s 52 milligrams. Amaranth is also high in iron, fiber, and magnesium. More study needs to be done in regards to the phytonutrients in amaranth, but it still makes a great addition to your diet. Amaranth can be used as a cooked “grain” and in baking. Just keep it in moderation (no more than 25% of your baking flour mix) because of its excellent binding properties.
Our roundup of small but powerful grains will be finished off with a look at Teff. This grain hails from Ethiopia, where it was easily transported and grown by nomadic people. Much like our other two grains, teff is exceptionally high in calcium compared to other grains. It also contains vitamin C, an exceptionally rare feature for a grain. Teff is a mildly flavored gluten-free grain that contains liberal amounts of fiber, and is being investigated as a preventative for diabetes. Teff is popular in ethnic markets, but more people are looking it as an alternative flour in baking, especially those concerned with celiac disease. Finally, the cooked grains have a variety of uses from a creamy, polenta-like substance to savory cakes.
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