Grains are grasses which are cultivated for their edible endosperm, germ and bran. The bran is the multi-layered outer skin of the edible kernel. The germ is the embryo which has the potential to sprout into a new plant. The endosperm, the largest part of the kernel, is the germ’s food supply, which provides essential energy to the young plant so it can send roots down for water and nutrients, and send sprouts up for sunlight’s photosynthesizing power
Cereal grains are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, oils and proteins. They are grown in greater quantities and provide more food energy than any other crop worldwide. They include wheat, rice, oats, barley, quinoa, spelt, corn, bulgur, millet, rye, amaranth, buckwheat and sorghum.
The word cereal comes from the Roman ceres, the name of the Roman goddess of agriculture and harvest. The first cereal grains, primarily wheat and barley, were cultivated around 12,000 years ago by ancient farming communities in the Fertile Crescent.
Most cereal crops are annuals, consequently one planting yields one harvest. Wheat, rye, oats, barley, and spelt are the “cool-season” cereals. These are hardy plants that grow well in moderate weather and cease to grow in hot weather (approximately 30 °C but this varies by species and variety). The warm-season cereals are grown in tropical lowlands year-round and in temperate climates during the frost-free season. Rice is commonly grown in flooded fields. Barley and rye are the hardiest cereals, able to overwinter in the subarctic region and in Siberia.
Once the cereal plants have produced their seeds, they have completed their life cycle. The plants die and become brown and dry. As soon as the parent plants and their seed kernels are reasonably dry, harvesting occurs, often by hand in developing countries.
Whole grains contain valuable antioxidants not found in fruits and vegetables, as well as B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, iron and fiber. Whole grains reduce risks of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity. Few foods can offer such diverse benefits.
People who eat whole grains regularly have a lower risk of obesity, as measured by their body mass index and waist-to-hip ratios. They also have lower cholesterol levels.
Whole grains are found in cereals, breads or constitute the starch portion of a well-balanced meal. You can also increase your consumption of whole grains by making certain substitutions in your recipes.
- Substitute half the white flour with whole-wheat flour in your regular recipes for cookies, muffins, quick breads and pancakes.
- Replace one third of the flour in a recipe with quick oats or old-fashioned oats.
- Add half a cup of cooked bulgur, wild rice, or barley to bread stuffing.
- Add half a cup of cooked wheat or rye berries, wild rice, brown rice, sorghum or barley to your favorite canned or homemade soup.
- Add three-quarters of a cup of uncooked oats for each pound of ground beef or turkey when you make meatballs, burgers or meatloaf.
Wheat is the primary cereal of temperate regions. It has a worldwide consumption but it is a staple food of South Asia, North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. It dominates the grains we eat because it contains large amounts of gluten, a stretchy protein that enables bakers to create satisfying risen breads.
White rice is refined, with the germ and bran removed. Whole-grain rice is usually brown but, it can also be black, purple, red or any of a variety of exotic hues. Around the world, rice thrives in warm, humid climates and is the primary cereal of tropical regions such as the Philippines, Thailand, Korea, Japan, China, India and Brazil. Most all of the U.S. rice crop is grown in Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas.
Converted rice is parboiled (partially cooked) before refining, a process which drives some of the B vitamins into the endosperm so that they are not lost when the bran is removed. As a result, converted rice is healthier than regular white rice, but still is lacking many nutrients found in brown rice. Brown rice is lower in fiber than most other whole grains, but rich in many nutrients.
Oats have a sweet flavor that makes them a favorite for breakfast cereals. Unique among grains, oats rarely have their bran and germ removed in processing.
In the U.S., most oats are steamed and flattened to produce “old-fashioned” or regular oats, quick oats, and instant oats. The more oats are flattened and steamed, the quicker they cook – and the softer they become. If you prefer a chewier, nuttier texture, consider steel-cut oats, also sometimes called Irish or Scottish oats. Steel-cut oats consist of the entire oat kernel (similar in look to a grain of rice), sliced once or twice into smaller pieces to help water penetrate and cook the grain.
Barley is one of the oldest cultivated grains. Egyptians buried mummies with necklaces of barley, and centuries later In 1324 Edward II of England standardized the inch as equal to “three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end to end lengthwise.” It is a highly-adaptable crop, growing north of the Arctic circle and as far south as Ethiopia.
Barley has a particularly tough hull, which is difficult to remove without losing some of the bran. Hulled barley, available at health food stores, retains more of the whole-grain nutrients but is very slow-cooking. Barley is also used for making malt beverages.
Quinoa (keen-wah) comes to us from the Andes, where it has long been cultivated by the Inca. Botanically a relative of Swiss chard and beets rather than a “true” grain, quinoa cooks in about 10-12 minutes, creating a light, fluffy side dish. It can also be incorporated into soups, salads and baked goods. Though much of our quinoa is still imported from South America, farmers in high-altitude areas near the Rockies are also beginning to cultivate quinoa.
Spelt is a variety of wheat widely cultivated until the spread of fertilizers and mechanized harvesting left it by the wayside in favor of wheat which is more compatible with industrialization. Spelt flour can be used in place of common wheat in most recipes and is readily available in grocery stores.
A staple food for both people and livestock worldwide, corn is cultivated in America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. A large portion of maize crops are grown for purposes other than human consumption. There used to be 307 different varieties of corn, but heirloom varieties are no longer available due to hybridization by big growers. Currently, there are only 12 varieties grown worldwide.
Most of the corn grown in the U.S. is used to feed cattle and to make sweeteners. We eat corn as fresh corn on the cob, popcorn, polenta, tortillas and corn muffins. Traditional Latin cultures learned how to treat corn with alkali, creating masa harina. This treatment liberates the niacin in corn, so those who depend on it for sustenance will avoid pellagra. Eating corn with beans creates a complementary mix of amino acids that raises the protein value to humans.
Millet is rarely served to humans in the United States – here, it’s the grain most often found in bird feeders. Yet it’s the leading staple grain in India, and is commonly eaten in China, South America, Russia and the Himalayas.
Millet has a mild flavor and is often mixed with other grains or toasted before cooking, to bring out the full extent of its delicate flavor. Its tiny grain can be white, gray, yellow or red.
Rye grows well in cold climates. For this reason it is a traditional part of cuisine in Northern Europe and Russia. Rye was also widely grown in colonial America; some historians believe a fungus, rye ergot, triggered hallucinations leading to the Salem witch trials.
Recently the Finnish bakery group Fazer started a three-year program to publicize the health benefits of rye products, in a major push to increase rye consumption. Rye is unusual among grains for the high level of fiber in its endosperm – not just in its bran. Because of this, rye products generally have a lower glycemic index than products made from wheat and most other grains, making them especially healthy for diabetics. Rye is used in breads and often is distilled.
Amaranth was a staple of Aztec culture, until Cortez, in an effort to destroy that civilization, decreed that anyone growing the crop would be put to death. Seeds were smuggled out to Asia, where local dialects referred to Amaranth as “king seed” and “seed sent by God” as a tribute to its taste and sustenance. Amaranth kernels are tiny; when cooked they resemble brown caviar. Amaranth is a “pseudo-grain” – like quinoa and buckwheat.
Amaranth has a lively, peppery taste and a higher level of protein (it’s roughly 13-14% protein) compared to most other grains. In South America, it is often sold on the streets, popped like corn. Amaranth has no gluten, so it must be mixed with wheat to make leavened breads. It is popular in cereals, breads, muffins, crackers and pancakes.
Besides being used for pancakes and breakfast cereal, Buckwheat is used to make Japan’s soba noodles, Brittany’s crêpes and Russia’s kasha are all made with buckwheat. Botanically, buckwheat is a cousin of rhubarb, not technically a grain at all – and certainly not a kind of wheat. But its nutrients, nutty flavor and appearance have led to its ready adoption into the family of grains. Buckwheat tolerates poor soil, grows well on rocky hillsides and thrives without chemical pesticides.
When wheat kernels are boiled, dried, cracked, then sorted by size, the result is bulgur. This wheat product is sometimes referred to as “Middle Eastern pasta” for its versatility as a base for all sorts of dishes. Bulgur is most often made from durum wheat, but in fact almost any wheat, hard or soft, red or white, can be made into bulgur.
Because bulgur has been precooked and dried, it needs to be boiled for only about 10 minutes to be ready to eat – about the same time as dry pasta. This makes bulgur an extremely nutritious fast food for quick side dishes, pilafs or salads. Perhaps bulgur’s best-known traditional use is in the minty grain and vegetable salad known as tabbouleh.
Sorghum is an important staple food in Asia and Africa and popular worldwide for livestock.
Farmers on the Great Plains from South Dakota to Texas appreciate that sorghum thrives where other crops would wither and die; in drought periods, in fact, it becomes partially dormant. Worldwide, about 50% of sorghum goes to human consumption, but in the U.S., most of the crop is fed to animals, made into wallboard or used for biodegradable packing materials.
Sorghum is believed to have originated in Africa, can be eaten like popcorn, cooked into porridge, ground into flour for baked goods, made into molasses or even brewed into beer.