Alternative Whole Grains

By Shannon February 11, 2014 Food

Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap/

If you are eating gluten-free or are allergic to wheat, you know how difficult it is to find products that do not contain wheat.  In fact, the American diet is primarily based upon wheat products. But, do not be dismayed as there are several ancient grains that may be used in lieu of wheat.  Most of these grains have been around for centuries, and only in the past 20 years have they become more mainstream in the United States.  Unfortunately, they were mostly found in specialty stores in previous years, but now you can find these wonderful grains in the major grocery chains in the organic section.  All of these grains have wonderful nutritional properties, and provide many health benefits. What are some of these ancient grains, and how can you cook them? Let’s take a look….



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Millet is actually a variety of small seed grasses featuring a myriad of colors and is a staple food of the Far East.  Although in the United States it is typically the main ingredient of bird seed, it is actually one of the world’s most important grains.  Millet is very nutritious, and contains protein, B vitamins, iron, calcium, magnesium, and zinc, and is also high in fiber.  It is easily digestible and tolerated by those with food sensitivities.


Millet can be prepared in a variety of ways.  Cooked millet can be made the same way as rice and used as a substitute for rice.  It can also can be eaten as a porridge.  Additionally, it may be substituted for potatoes, or added to vegetables.




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Most people in the US have never heard of sorghum, much less know how to prepare it.  Sorghum is another cereal grain from a variety of grasses like millet, and is the fifth most important grain in the world.  It is a staple food of the East and Africa, but is primarily used for livestock feed in the US.  Sorghum is similar in nutrition content to maize, but some specialty sorghums can be high in antioxidants and phytonutrients, and may help prevent cancer as well as regulate blood sugar.


Sorghum flour is a perfect substitute for baking gluten-free, and is high in protein, iron and fiber.  It has a mild sweet flavor and smooth texture, and can be used in recipes that call for traditional wheat flour.  Sorghum may also be served popped, or as a porridge.




The ancient grain of the Incas, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is cultivated for its seeds and belongs to the same family as that of spinach, Swiss chard, and beets. Quinoa boasts a high nutritional value, as it is high in antioxidant phytonutrients, monounsaturated fat, manganese, copper, phosphorous, zinc, folate, and fiber, and still even provides a smaller amount of omega-3 fatty acid. Additionally, quinoa is also a complete protein.  Quinoa is becoming increasingly popular in the United States because of its health benefits such as lowering cholesterol and regulating blood sugar, as well as having a high amount of anti-inflammatory nutrients.  The United Nations General Assembly declared 2013 as the “International Year of Quinoa.”


Quinoa may be used as a substitute for dishes that call for rice, barley or rye.  Quinoa is prepared in the same way as rice, and is typically ready within 15-20 minutes.




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The ancient staple of the Aztecs, amaranth is not a grain, but actually a combination of several species of amaranths flowers.  Like quinoa, amaranth is a complete protein, and it is the only grain that contains Vitamin C.  It is also a good source of Vitamin A, calcium, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin. Its health benefits include lowering cholesterol and reducing blood sugar.


Amaranth can be prepared in several ways using the green leafy part or the seeds.  The seeds can be popped, or made into a porridge, like millet.  Additionally, amaranth flour can be used as a substitute for wheat in baking.




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Popular in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, buckwheat is a fruit seed related to rhubarb and sorrel, and not at all related to wheat. Its seeds are similar to those of sunflowers and wheat kernels, but with a triangular shape.  Buckwheat has several health benefits, including lowering cholesterol and blood pressure since it contains the antioxidant rutin as well as aiding in regulating blood sugar and preventing gallstones.  Buckwheat is typically sold as roasted (kasha), un-roasted, or as flour.


Buckwheat flour is perfect for baking, pancakes, waffles, and muffins.  Buckwheat can also be prepared as a porridge for breakfast. Buckwheat can be used as a substitute for wheat, barley, rye or oats.

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