For many, whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet. Consuming at least three servings of whole grains per day (one serving is one-half cup of cooked grains like oatmeal or rice, or one slice of bread) can reduce the risk of some chronic health conditions like cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, and certain cancers. One study also showed that eating whole grains in place of refined grains can reduce potentially dangerous excess abdominal fat, buildup that can raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and even cause insulin resistance (potentially leading to diabetes).
But what to do when oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, and even quinoa are getting old? Here are 17 grains you’ve probably never heard of that can be great additions to a healthy diet.
Once considered a weed, amaranth is now known for it's killer nutritional value. This grain is high in fiber (21 percent of the daily recommended value per cup), and it’s also a great source of the amino acid lysine and nutrients magnesium, calcium, and squalene, a compound that may help prevent cancer. Cholesterol-lowering properties of amaranth grain and oil in hamsters. Berger A, Gremaud G, Baumgartner M. International journal for vitamin and nutrition research. Internationale Zeitschrift für Vitamin- und Ernährungsforschung. Journal international de vitaminologie et de nutrition, 2003, Sep.;73(1):0300-9831. Squalene: potential chemopreventive agent. Smith TJ. Expert opinion on investigational drugs, 2001, Jan.;9(8):1354-3784. Plus, it’s a protein powerhouse: In one study, rats that consumed amaranth grew more than those that were fed maize thanks to the grain's 9 grams of protein per cup. Evaluation of the nutritional value of the amaranth plant. I. Raw and heat-treated grain tested in experiments on growing rats. Andrásofszky E, Szöcs Z, Fekete S. Acta veterinaria Hungarica, 1998, Sep.;46(1):0236-6290. It also may have cholesterol-lowering potential (at least, in hamsters). Cholesterol-lowering properties of amaranth grain and oil in hamsters. Berger A, Gremaud G, Baumgartner M. International journal for vitamin and nutrition research. Internationale Zeitschrift für Vitamin- und Ernährungsforschung. Journal international de vitaminologie et de nutrition, 2003, Sep.;73(1):0300-9831.
Kamut is the brand name—and most commonly used name—for the ancient khorasan strain of wheat. It’s a great source of protein, with 11 grams per cup, as well as nutrients like selenium, zinc, and magnesium. One study even showed that rats that consumed kamut had better responses to oxidative stress than those that had eaten wheat, which basically means kamut has is higher in antioxidants than regular wheat. Role of cereal type and processing in whole grain in vivo protection from oxidative stress. Gianotti A, Danesi F, Verardo V. Frontiers in bioscience (Landmark edition), 2011, Jan.;16():1093-4715.
Formerly used primarily as bird feed, millet is increasing in popularity among humans, whether it’s prepared like rice or made into flour and used in baked goods. It’s a good source of protein (6 grams per cup) and has been shown to help control glucose levels. The effect of finger millet feeding on the early responses during the process of wound healing in diabetic rats. Rajasekaran NS, Nithya M, Rose C. Biochimica et biophysica acta, 2004, Sep.;1689(3):0006-3002. Amelioration of hyperglycaemia and its associated complications by finger millet ( Eleusine coracana L.) seed coat matter in streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats. Shobana S, Harsha MR, Platel K. The British journal of nutrition, 2010, Oct.;104(12):1475-2662. Another benefit of keeping glucose levels in check? When blood sugar levels are steady, energy levels are steady.
These teeny tiny grains pack a sizable nutritional punch: Teff is surprisingly high in calcium (one cup contains 35 percent of the daily recommended value), vitamin C, and it's gluten-free. Teff primarily contains high-resistant starch, which can help prevent colon cancer. Effects of resistant starch on the colon in healthy volunteers: possible implications for cancer prevention. Hylla S, Gostner A, Dusel G. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 1998, Feb.;67(1):0002-9165. Resistant starches aren't immediately digested when traveling through the small intestine. Instead, they hang out in the large intestine, where bacteria feed on them and create fatty acids that make the environment less welcoming to bacteria that can harm the colon. Effects of resistant starch on the colon in healthy volunteers: possible implications for cancer prevention. Hylla S, Gostner A, Dusel G. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 1998, Feb.;67(1):0002-9165. A study also showed that people who ate muffins high in resistant starch felt fuller than those who ate muffins without. Greater satiety response with resistant starch and corn bran in human subjects. Willis HJ, Eldridge AL, Beiseigel J. Nutrition research (New York, N.Y.), 2009, Jun.;29(2):1879-0739. Teff’s tiny size (about the size of a poppy seed) allows it to cook quickly compared to other grains, ranging from 12 to 20 minutes depending on desired texture.
This grain is freakin' awesome! (Sorry, we had to.) Basically, freekeh is wheat that’s harvested early (when the leaves are yellow and the seeds are green and soft) and then roasted, giving it a smoky flavor. Freekeh has up to four times as much protein as brown rice, and it's low on the glycemic index. Plus, it boasts a ton of fiber, which is beneficial to colon health. Freekeh can be prepared similarly to rice and is popular in pilafs and risottos.
Barley dates back to the Stone Age and can take on many roles. It can be ground into flour or meal for baked goods, added to soups and stews in its pearled form, and (of course) malted to make beer or whiskey. Since it’s high in fiber (almost one quarter of the daily recommended value is in one cup of the pearled stuff), it may help prevent some chronic diseases and lower cholesterol. Effects of barley intake on glucose tolerance, lipid metabolism, and bowel function in women. Li J, Kaneko T, Qin LQ. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 2004, Mar.;19(11-12):0899-9007.
Fonio might be a tiny type of millet, but there's a ton of nutritional value in this grain. It’s rich in amino acids—specifically methionine, which helps the liver process fat, and cystine, which is part of the proteins that make up our hair, nails, and skin, and also helps remove toxins from the liver and brain. Flavonoids extracted from fonio millet (Digitaria exilis) reveal potent antithyroid properties. Sartelet H, Serghat S, Lobstein A. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 1996, Oct.;12(2):0899-9007. Fonio is also one of the grains highest in magnesium, zinc, and manganese. But there may be some reason to beware: One study has linked fonio and other types of millet to hypothyroidism (when the thyroid doesn’t produce enough of certain hormones) and possible development of autism in children whose mothers ingested too much during pregnancy. But further research on both subjects is needed before conclusions can be drawn. Autism: transient in utero hypothyroxinemia related to maternal flavonoid ingestion during pregnancy and to other environmental antithyroid agents. Román GC. Journal of the neurological sciences, 2007, Jul.;262(1-2):0022-510X.
Sorghum is a gluten-free grain that can be a great option for those with celiac disease. Plus, it's super versatile—it can be used as flour in baked goods, cooked into porridge, popped like popcorn, or even used to make beer. One study found it’s even higher in polyphenol antioxidants than blueberries and pomegranates. Polyphenols: food sources and bioavailability. Manach C, Scalbert A, Morand C. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2004, May.;79(5):0002-9165. Anti-inflammatory activity of select sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) brans. Burdette A, Garner PL, Mayer EP. Journal of medicinal food, 2010, Dec.;13(4):1557-7600. And look out in the future: Extract from sorghum bran (the hard, outer layer of the grain, usually removed during processing) may soon become a popular additive to foods to increase antioxidant content in a cost-effective way.
Bulgur, another derivative of wheat, is the result of boiling, drying, and cracking wheat kernels. It’s incredibly versatile in dishes and cooks in about the same amount of time as pasta. With eight grams of fiber per cup, or 33 percent of the daily recommended value, bulgur beats quinoa, oats, millet, buckwheat, and corn in that category.
Spelt is a type of wheat that is higher in protein than other types, and—in flour form—can easily be used as a substitute for wheat flour in recipes. There is some evidence that those with sensitivity to wheat can tolerate spelt, but other research suggests those with gluten intolerance might still want to hold off. [Spelt wheat and celiac disease]. Forssell F, Wieser H. Zeitschrift für Lebensmittel-Untersuchung und -Forschung, 1995, Nov.;201(1):0044-3026.
When wheat and rye meet and fall in love, they make triticale (say: tri-ti-KAY-lee) a hybrid of the two grains that's been around since the 1960s. This young’n can help lower cholesterol, and, in one study, was shown to have significant antioxidant contents. Whole wheat and triticale flours with differing viscosities stimulate cecal fermentations and lower plasma and hepatic lipids in rats. Adam A, Levrat-Verny MA, Lopez HW. The Journal of nutrition, 2001, Jun.;131(6):0022-3166. Dual functionality of triticale as a novel dietary source of prebiotics with antioxidant activity in fermented dairy products. Agil R, Hosseinian F. Plant foods for human nutrition (Dordrecht, Netherlands), 2014, Jun.;67(1):1573-9104. Triticale is often eaten in berry form or as oatmeal-like flakes.
Native to Russia, buckwheat is actually not a type of wheat at all—it's an herb. More closely related to rhubarb than to wheat (making it gluten-free), its seeds are ground into flour or crushed to make groats, which are cooked like rice. Buckwheat may also help lower cholesterol levels by binding to cholesterol molecules and dragging them out of the body on their way through the digestive system. Insoluble fraction of buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum Moench) protein possessing cholesterol-binding properties that reduce micelle cholesterol solubility and uptake by Caco-2 cells. Metzger BT, Barnes DM, Reed JD. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 2007, Jul.;55(15):0021-8561. It can also be helpful in treating diabetes because it naturally contains a compound that lowers blood glucose levels. Buckwheat concentrate reduces serum glucose in streptozotocin-diabetic rats. Kawa JM, Taylor CG, Przybylski R. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 2004, Jan.;51(25):0021-8561. Buckwheat is the main ingredient in most soba noodles and these delicious-looking pancakes.
14. Red rice
White rice, brown rice, red rice?! A type of yeast growing on rice grains yields this fun colored food—and the health benefits are pretty astounding. Long used for its medicinal properties in Asian countries (back in the 1300s, it was used in China to aid indigestion, blood circulation, and spleen health), red rice extract is gaining popularity in the US for its cholesterol-lowering properties. [With red rice against cholesterol?]. Enkovaara AL. Duodecim; lääketieteellinen aikakauskirja, 2010, Jul.;126(6):0012-7183. Red rice can also refer to a type of rice with a red husk, which is high in fiber, has a nutty taste, and, when mixed with other foods, can turn the dish a festive shade of pink or red.
15. Indian rice grass
Indian rice grass, also known by the brand name Montina, is a staple of Native American diets and has gained popularity in the gluten-free community, for obvious reasons. Pure Indian rice grass flour is super high in protein and fiber, with 17 grams of protein, 24 grams of dietary fiber, and 24 grams of insoluble fiber in just two-thirds of a cup. It can have an intense wheat-like flavor, so it’s best combined with other flours in dark baked goods.
16. Rye berries
Everyone knows about rye bread, but the grain can also be eaten in its berry form. Rye berries can be cooked like rice or barley in pilafs or soups, though cooking can take up to an hour. Not a fan of rye bread? Don't be discouraged—that distinct flavor comes from caraway seeds added to the bread, not the rye itself, so dishes made with rye berries won’t have the same taste. As for health benefits, it’s hard to beat rye: One study showed that rye contains a peptide called lunasin, which could play a role in cancer prevention. The cancer preventive seed peptide lunasin from rye is bioavailable and bioactive. Jeong HJ, Lee JR, Jeong JB. Nutrition and cancer, 2010, Jan.;61(5):1532-7914. "Potential health benefits of lunasin: a multifaceted soy-derived bioactive peptide". Lule VK, Garg S, Pophaly SD. Journal of food science, 2015, Jan.;80(3):1750-3841. Another showed that rye fiber appears to be more effective than the wheat fiber in improving bowel health. The cancer preventive seed peptide lunasin from rye is bioavailable and bioactive. Jeong HJ, Lee JR, Jeong JB. Nutrition and cancer, 2010, Jan.;61(5):1532-7914. Whole-grain rye and wheat foods and markers of bowel health in overweight middle-aged men. McIntosh GH, Noakes M, Royle PJ. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2003, Apr.;77(4):0002-9165.
17. Wheat berries
We’ve all heard of wheat, but most of the wheat we eat is in baked goods like bread and muffins—not always healthy. Wheat berries, on the other hand, are a way to get wheat in its most natural state—whole kernels with only the hull removed. This means they contain all the grain’s nutrients and minerals. One half-cup serving is a great source of selenium, manganese, phosphorous, magnesium, and lignan, a phytochemical that may help protect against breast cancer. Dietary lignan intake and postmenopausal breast cancer risk by estrogen and progesterone receptor status. Touillaud MS, Thiébaut AC, Fournier A. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2007, Apr.;99(6):1460-2105. Once cooked (simmered in boiling water for up to an hour should do it), they are a great addition to soups, stews, and even salads. Since wheat berries are quite literally whole wheat, they may be more filling than a similar amount of food made with wheat flour. The botanical integrity of wheat products influences the gastric distention and satiety in healthy subjects. Hlebowicz J, Lindstedt S, Björgell O. Nutrition journal, 2008, Apr.;7():1475-2891.
Originally published April 2012. Updated April 2016.