As a staple in diets around the world, we love grains in many forms: breads, pastas, cereals and beer to name a few. But with terms like “whole grain,” “gluten free,” and “ancient grain” being used more and more frequently, all the types of grains can be complex and confusing to navigate.
Check out the grain guide below to get the scoop on the different types of grains and why they're great.
Whole vs. Refined
In recent years, there has been more buzz about the benefits of incorporating whole grains into our diets, but it can be difficult to understand what classifies a grain as “whole.” All grains start as a whole kernel, containing the bran, germ and endosperm. To qualify as a whole grain, all three of these components must remain completely intact. Refined grains go through a process to remove the bran and germ, leaving only the endosperm. This refinement process occurs for many reasons, mainly to increase shelf life of mass-produced grain products like white bread and pasta. When being stripped of the bran and germ, these refined grains lose much of the nutritional content found in the whole kernel.
Are whole grains healthy?
Because whole grains remain in their natural state with the three parts of the kernel intact, they are much less processed than their refined counterparts. Whole grains provide many nutritional benefits, mainly in the form of higher protein and fiber content, as well as contain key vitamins and minerals.
What’s the deal with gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten-free diets are becoming increasingly popular for those who are sensitive or intolerant to gluten, but that doesn't have to mean giving up grain. While gluten and grains are commonly associated and thus avoided altogether, most whole grains are actually gluten free. Popular whole grains like corn, quinoa and rice, as well as many others, don’t contain gluten and are safe to add to gluten-free diets.
Types of Grains
When it comes to choosing which of the most widely consumed grains to eat, there are lots of options. Some of the more common grains are highlighted below:
Corn: As the most produced grain worldwide, corn has been an American staple for years. Corn contains ten times the amount of vitamin A as other types of grains.
Photo provided by Mana Food Bar in Chicago.
A versatile ingredient, both sweet and savory corn can be found whole in restaurant sides, as well as finely ground as cornmeal in dishes like polenta and grits.
Photo provided by SOUTH in Philadelphia.
Oats: Typically found in oatmeal and other breakfast porridges, oats are another champion whole grain. Oats are higher in protein and fiber than many other whole grains, which is why they’re often eaten for breakfast, helping people to stay full and energized throughout the day. With their slightly sweet taste and chewy texture, oats make not only great breakfast items but also awesome additions to veggie burgers, pilafs and other savory dishes.
Rice: With over 40,000 types, rice is a key whole grain in diets around the world. Brown rice, whose bran remains intact, is very high in manganese and known to help cut the risk of diabetes and lower cholesterol. Cooked rice is used in various cuisines and dishes, such as puddings, risottos and as a base for curries and sauces.
Photo provided by Empire in Boston.
Wheat: Found in everything from baked goods to beer, wheat is one of the most common grains. Outside of wheat flour used in bread and pasta, wheat can be enjoyed in many other ways. Bulgur, a dried, cracked wheat, is often used in Middle Eastern dishes like tabbouleh. Wheat berries, which are the whole kernel of the wheat plant, have a chewy texture and can be found in hearty salads or savory sides.
Recently, ancient grains have gained popularity because of their health benefits and are popping up in home kitchens and restaurants alike. While this may seem like a trendy new food group to try, ancient grains actually date back to early civilizations and have been largely unchanged since they were first discovered. Here are some ancient grains to look out for on your next dining adventure:
*Quinoa: This tiny seed with the tricky name (pronounced KEEN-wah) has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years as a nutritional powerhouse in the grain world. Originating in South America, quinoa is considered one of the few plant-based complete proteins because it contains all essential amino acids. Quinoa is incredibly versatile, has a slightly nutty flavor and can be found in anything from salads to burgers.
Photo provided by Comodo in NYC.
*Amaranth: Like quinoa, amaranth is a seed dating back to Aztec civilization. Amaranth is also a complete protein that can replace meat or fish in vegetarian or vegan diets. This ancient grain is also very calcium rich, containing five times more calcium than regular wheat. With a fine texture and nutty, slightly peppery flavor, amaranth can be used in sweet or savory dishes.
*Quinoa and amaranth are technically seeds that are considered “pseudo-cereal” grains because they contain a similar nutritional makeup and are cooked the same way as whole grains.
Teff: This tiny, poppy seed-like grain originated in Northern Africa and is still a staple in Ethiopian cooking today. Teff has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor and a texture similar to Cream of Wheat. This tiny grain is high in protein, fiber, manganese and vitamin C, which is not usually found in grains.
Freekah: With this ancient grain, the name actually refers to the harvesting process rather than the grain itself. Freekah is wheat that is harvested when it is young and green and then roasted, giving it a rich and smoky flavor. Commonly found in Middle Eastern cooking, freekah has twice as much fiber as quinoa.
Farro: This chewy, nutty-flavored grain originated in Egypt and is still widely used in Italian cooking today.
Photo provided by Upland in NYC.
Farro is a great substitute for rice and makes a nice addition to soups and sides, as well as a puffed-up, crunchy textural addition to many dishes.