All About Grains
A Guide from ICE's Director of Nutrition
Whole grains, including whole wheat and brown rice, are carbohydrates from edible grasses in the Poaceae family. These plants produce small separate dry fruits, called kernels, berries or grains. Pseudo-grains, like quinoa and buckwheat, come from a variety of other botanical families. Based on physical characteristics, nutrition profiles and culinary uses, we usually consider these all one group: grains.
A mainstay among cultures worldwide, grains account for about 80% of the world’s calories. Commonly consumed ones include amaranth, barley, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, quinoa, rice, rye, sorghum, teff, triticale, wheat and wild rice. Within these groups, take rice for example, grains can vary wildly by texture, flavor and appearance. For example, whole grain rice can be found as short- or long-grain brown, black, red or green varieties.
In almost every case, grains are rehydrated and cooked or ground to flours before they are cooked. Many cultures also cultivate grains for sprouting or fermenting into porridges and beverages. While volatile compounds are lost in processing and fibers may be a little less effective, a grain’s nutrient profile remains nearly the same so long as the whole food is eaten. Regular consumption of 100% whole grains is associated with a host of long-term health benefits, including better weight management, digestive health and blood sugar control.
Why 100% whole?
A whole grain’s three distinct layers — bran, starchy endosperm and oily germ — provide complementary health benefits. These parts contain fiber, protein, and essential vitamins and minerals that are lost in processing when a grain is refined. All-purpose wheat flour, for example, is the starchy portion stripped of fiber and germ. Whereas 100% whole wheat flour is ground whole wheat berries.
To reap health-promoting benefits, experts recommend consuming about 6-8 ounces of whole grains and whole-grain products every day (i.e. 1 ½ cups cooked or about two slices of 100% whole grain bread). A cup of cooked or overnight oats and a slice of whole-grain bread as part of lunch will just about do it, but there’s no end to the ways you could meet the recommended amount of servings.
Are they good for everyone? Not exactly. Gluten, a protein network found in all forms of wheat, barley and rye, provides elasticity, binding and hold-moisture in foods, especially baked goods. But for people with autoimmune celiac sprue or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, all forms of gluten-containing grains and foods that may be contaminated with them should be avoided. That still leaves plenty of whole grains to choose from.
In the kitchen, I like to breakout grains into two basic categories: quick or longer cooking. In the first case, I include millet, teff, amaranth, bulgur wheat, quinoa and buckwheat — all whole grains that go from pantry to plate in less than 30 minutes. Longer cooking ones, like brown rice or farro (green whole wheat), may take 45 minutes or up to an hour or more, and grains with fibrous hulls, like whole rye, may need two hours in a pressure cooker. Soaking long-cooking grains can speed up the cooking and may wick away substances that bind up some of their minerals but can yield a mushy final product. If you want to pre-soak grains you will need to adjust the amount of liquid you use and your cooking times by degrees.
Once cooked, grains can be consumed as a side dish or cooked again into a wide variety of dishes. In the Health-Supportive Culinary Arts program, long-grain brown rice is a staple food, which students practice with and are tested on. Once students get the rice, water and salt ratio down pat for cooking up a pot into tender but separate grains, we take it to the next level. Batch-cooked grains are turned into burgers, salads and porridges.
A great way to get started is by cooking up a pot of brown rice. Our basic recipe starts with 1 cup rice to 1 ¾ cup water and ¼ teaspoon of salt. Bring everything to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes, covered until all of the water is absorbed. You can vary the flavor by adding a bay leaf, a cinnamon stick or a pounded stalk of lemongrass.
Here’s a go-to recipe adapted from the first grain cooking class in Health-Supportive Culinary Arts, where we cook up and taste about 10 forms, including soba noodles. This recipe uses quick-cooking bulgur wheat to create a bright summer tabbouleh salad loaded with fresh herbs and crisp vegetables. Swap out bulgur for quinoa, millet or brown rice to make this dish gluten-free, and use any fresh or cooked vegetables to give this dish your own personal spin.
Yields approximately 2 1/2 cups
- 1 cup bulgur
- 1 ¼ cups water
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup lemon juice
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ½ to ¾ teaspoon salt
- 2 plum tomatoes, seeded and cut into small dice
- 1 bunch parsley, chopped
- 4 scallions, thinly sliced
- 2 ribs celery, cut into small dice
- ½ bunch mint, chopped
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Bring water and salt to boil in small saucepot, add bulgur, cover and bring back to a rolling boil for 1 minute. Remove pot from heat. Let steam, covered, 30 minutes.
- In large bowl, toss warm bulgur with lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. Let sit until it reaches room temperature.
- Combine bulgur with tomatoes, parsley, scallions, celery and mint, mixing thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Work with grains in Health-Supportive Culinary Arts at ICE.
Cho SS, Qi L, Fahey GC Jr, Klurfeld DM. Consumption of cereal fiber, mixtures of whole grains and bran, and whole grains and risk reduction in type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Aug;98(2):594-619. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.067629.
Whole Grains (2021). Linus Pauling Institute.
Oldways whole grains council (2021).
USDA Agricultural Council (2021).