Grains are one of the world’s most important foods. These efficient and easy-to-cultivate plants are basically giant, domesticated grasses. In many countries, maize (corn), rice and wheat form the bulk of people’s diets – with good reason: they are packed with energy in the form of carbohydrates, and perform pretty well on the protein (especially when paired with vegetables) and vitamin fronts too. Tortillas, risotto, pasta, couscous, pilaf (grain dish seasoned with broth and spices), paella, bread – these nutritious, filling foods make the world go round.
Making the grain
Whole grains are an amazing and complex food. Unprocessed grains have their full three-part make-up present: the outer covering (husk or bran), the kernel (the large, starch bearing part) and the germ (the grain’s source of protein). They are therefore rich in fibre, carbohydrates and protein. Grains are an excellent source of B vitamins, which are necessary for cell growth and metabolic functions. Vitamin B1 is essential to organ and nerve functioning. Vitamin B3 helps you release energy from food and reduces cholesterol. Most of these nutrients are in the husk (there’s almost 10 times more vitamin B1 in whole wheat flour than in white). Whole grains are one of our best sources of fibre. They also contain polyphenols – antioxidants helpful in preventing certain cancers as well as heart disease – and selenium, which helps with thyroid function. Antioxidant supplements are too quickly digested to have any effect . Scientists now suggest the fibre in grains, fruits and vegetables is essential to helping the body absorb antioxidants.
The whole truth
When grains are refined, the fibre and vitamin packed husk, and sometimes the protein rich germ, are lost, leaving just the carb element. Whole grains, on the other hand, are nutritionally intact foods – if you plant them, they will grow. Milling grains into flours, usually done at high speed and heat, inhibits enzymes that would otherwise help us to digest grains. So, wherever possible, it’s best to eat whole grains.
Quinoa: This is not a grain, but a pseudo cereal (it’s more closely related to spinach). This South American seed has a high protein content (12–18%) and is a good source of magnesium and iron, making it an excellent food for vegetarians. Rinse it well before boiling for 15–20 minutes (it’s ready when you can see the white germ curled around the grain).
Amaranth: Similar to quinoa, but this protein-rich, gluten-free seed is a bit harder to find locally.
Barley: These nutty grains are fairly low in gluten and a good source of phosphorus, for strong bones and teeth. Add to soup as a yummy thickener. Pearled barley has the husk removed.
Millet: An ancient, gluten-free grain with similar nutritional properties to wheat. Wash it, then toast before adding lots of water and boiling for about 35 minutes.
Spelt: An ancient form of wheat and an alternative to commercial, possibly GM (genetically modified) wheat.
Brown basmati rice: Basmati rice has a low GI compared to other rice, and brown basmati is available from most health food stores. It takes about twice as long to cook as white.