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Gluten Free Doesn't Mean Whole Grain Free

Oldways Millet Cakes

Gluten is a mix of two proteins found in barley, rye, wheat, and triticale (a wheat-rye hybrid). Because it’s elastic and stretchy, gluten allows dough to rise and transform itself into crusty, fragrant loaves of bread that beckon to us from bakery shelves.

Some people may have trouble digesting gluten’s complex proteins, however. An estimated 1% of the population has celiac disease, and cannot tolerate the least amount of gluten. Another small group (estimated at 1-6% of us, by top experts) may be sensitive to gluten without having celiac disease. The rest of us – 93 to 98% of people on earth – have no reason to avoid gluten, no matter what various celebrities may claim.

That said, there’s good news if you’re following a gluten-free diet but still want the health benefits and good taste of whole grains: Most grains contain no gluten. Here’s a guide to ten gluten-free whole grains:

  • Amaranth – Native to Latin America, amaranth was a major food crop of the Aztecs. Its tiny grains are often popped and eaten as a snack in Mexico.
  • Buckwheat – If you’ve eaten soba noodles or the savory crepes called “galettes” in France, you’ve enjoyed buckwheat, which is not related to wheat.
  • Corn – Popcorn is everyone’s favorite whole grain snack. You can also find whole grain cornmeal made into cornbread or muffins, and tortillas.
  • MilletMillet is the name given to several small-seeded grains especially popular in Asia and Africa. In China, the word for “harmony” is written by combining the characters for “millet” and “mouth!” Those are millet cakes in the photo above!
  • OatsOats are naturally gluten-free, but may pick up some gluten if they’re grown or processed alongside wheat, barley, or rye. Look for oats certified as gluten-free to be sure.
  • Quinoa – Most of the world’s quinoa [KEEN-wah] is grown high in the Andes. Quinoa makes a great base for grain bowls and grain salads.
  • Rice – Brown rice isn’t the only whole grain rice. Red rice and black rice also offer extra nutrients and great plate appeal.
  • Sorghum – A distant cousin of corn, sorghum has a neutral flavor that goes with everything. Plus it’s drought-resistant, making it a great crop for areas affected by climate change.
  • Teff – You’ll find teff at Ethiopian restaurants, where it’s fermented and cooked into injera, a spongy flatbread used to scoop up other foods.
  • Wild rice – Originally grown by Native Americans in the northern Great Lakes region, wild rice is now cultivated in California for its delightful nutty flavor.
These ten whole grains are great choices for all of us. After all, if your doctor advised you to eat more vegetables you wouldn’t simply eat carrots day after day (healthy as carrots are!) – you’d understand the importance of enjoying many different vegetables, each of which offers a variety of nutrients, flavors, and textures. The same is true of whole grains: each one brings different health benefits and tastes to the table, so we can all benefit from trying a wide range of different grains.

How many of these grains have you tried? What are you waiting for?

-- by Cynthia Harriman / Director of Food & Nutrition Strategies

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