Each month FBC member and certified nutritionist, Sondi Bruner, helps us navigate the ins and outs of eating a healthy but delicious diet, whether it’s adapting to an allergen-friendly diet or figuring out natural sweeteners (and everything in between). This month she guides us through the many gluten-free grains that are available, offering a variety of textures, flavours and uses.
A decade ago, if you asked me to name all the grains I could think of, I would've capped out at four: wheat, rice, oats and rye. Today, my pantry is home to grains that number in the double digits and I'm always eager to try to latest and trendiest gluten-free grain. New gluten-free eaters often gravitate to rice and rice products, yet there's a glut of delicious gluten-free grains that have a variety of textures, flavours and uses. Today, I'd like to share some of my favourite gluten-free grains and how you can incorporate them into your cooking.
But first, a little rant. 'Cause after two years of these columns, you and I are friends. Several years ago, publications began posting articles about the "risks" of gluten-free diets. I deemed the reasoning a load of bunk, and wrote as much on my blog. I hoped that as our awareness grew about gluten-free diets, these myopic criticisms would abate. The opposite has happened and, if anything, the gluten-free diet has been utterly demonized for people who don't have celiac disease; following a gluten-free diet is characterized as akin to smoking or strutting down a trestle bridge or watching too much Netflix.
The main problem with the studies which claim gluten-free diets are unhealthy is they investigate gluten-free processed and highly refined foods like cookies, cakes and other pastries, crackers, chips, frozen meals, canned food, et cetera. Pizza and doughnuts can lead to weight gain and diabetes? You don't say! Any food, whether gluten-free or glutenous, has the potential to help or harm our health. And as we'll see today, gluten-free grains are chock-full of nutrients that even surpass their wheat-y counterparts.
In general, gluten-free grains are:
- High in B vitamins, which help boost our energy levels and manage stress
- Rich in fibre, which supports digestion (read: it helps you poop!), lowers cholesterol levels and balances blood sugar
- A good source of minerals like iron and magnesium, as well as anti-oxidants
- Whole grains are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity and overall mortality
Whole Grains Vs Refined Grains
A whole grain contains the bran, the endosperm and the germ. Refined grains — such as white rice — don't contain the bran or the germ, leaving us with the starchy endosperm. These refined grains aren't as rich in nutrients, which is why I opt for whole grains as much as possible.
Rice is one of the most popular gluten-free grains and it's easily available in many varieties, shapes and sizes (short, medium and long). Some of the common types you'll find are:
- Brown Rice. I favour brown rice because it's a whole grain and contains a load of beneficial nutrients. It’s rich in manganese, which plays an important role in many biochemical reactions in the body, supports bones and joints, and protects our cells from free radicals. You’ll also find selenium, an antioxidant. Brown rice has plenty of magnesium, which relaxes our muscles, as well as tryptophan, a mood-boosting, sleep-inducing amino acid. Research indicates that substituting brown rice for white rice may help prevent Type 2 diabetes, reduce cardiovascular risk and lower inflammatory markers.
- White Rice. This is a refined grain without the bran or germ. Since there are a lot of nutrients in the parts that have been stripped away, white rice isn't my first choice, but it's something that I use on occasion depending on the recipe because it's quick-cooking.
- Red Rice. This variety is also rich in magnesium, manganese and fibre, but unlike brown rice it cooks quickly, in a similar amount of time as white rice.
- Black Rice. Also known as forbidden rice, this dark-hued rice is high in antioxidants, particularly anthocyanins, a class of antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties; plus they reduce cardiovascular risk and help with weight control. One study declared that a spoonful of black rice has more anti-oxidants than blueberries, along with less sugar and more fibre.
More recently, there've been concerns about rice and its potentially risky levels of arsenic, particularly in baby products that tend to use rice and rice flours. Interestingly, some evidence shows there's actually more arsenic in brown rice than white, as arsenic collects in the outer layers of the grain and these are stripped away from white rice.
Rice and arsenic is a valid worry, but that doesn't mean you need to completely eliminate it from your diet. I recommend rotating it with other gluten-free grains. Also, it helps to rinse your rice well and use extra water when cooking it. Boil your rice with plenty of water, like you would when cooking pasta; this can reduce arsenic levels by 35 to 45 percent.
Try This: Black Rice, Beet and Kale Salad
As a child, I had a blue budgie named Kimmie and I never imagined that one day I'd grow up and love to eat her birdseed! Millet is a small, yellow-coloured gluten-free grain that's extremely high in antioxidants and magnesium. Studies about millet indicate it may help control blood sugar, improve cardiovascular function and, when sprouted, it can boost our body's ability to digest and absorb its nutrients.
Try This: Creamy Chia Parfaits with Crunchy Millet
There's some dispute as to whether oats are truly gluten-free; while they contain no gluten they're often grown and processed alongside wheat, leading to cross contamination. There's also a small amount of celiacs who react to an additional protein in oats called avenin. However, certified gluten-free oats are typically tolerated in celiacs and people with gluten sensitivities — just ensure you check labels on oats and oat-based products to determine if they're gluten-free.
There are a few different styles of oats:
- Steel Cut. The whole oat grain is sliced with steel blades, creating a rice-like look and chewy texture.
- Old Fashioned or Rolled. The oats are steamed, rolled and flattened.
- Quick-Cooking or Instant. The oats are pre-cooked before being rolled and flattened.
I mainly use gluten-free old fashioned/rolled oats in my kitchen. They're easy to use in a variety of ways, cook relatively quickly and I like the texture.
Health-wise, oats can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and prevent insulin resistance and diabetes. They also contain beta-glucans, a type of fibre that strengthens the immune system and has anti-cancer properties.
How to Use It: Of course there's the traditional oatmeal, but I'm also a savoury oats fanatic. Use them in baked treats, granola, granola bars and energy balls. You can also grind the oats into a flour to use in baked goods or as a thickener.
Try This: Savory Turmeric Spice Granola
If you're looking for a gluten-free option that mimics couscous, you'll absolutely love sorghum. It's an ancient whole grain that's round, small and couscous-like, with a mild and nutty flavour along with a chewy texture. Sorghum helps manage cholesterol levels and balance blood sugar, and it may may inhibit cancer cells. It's a rich source of anti-oxidants, too.
How to Use It: Make gluten-free couscous, serve it as a side dish or incorporate it into salads and pilafs. Sorghum requires more water than other grains: cook it using a ratio of 1 cup sorghum to 3 cups water. Since it's a longer-cooking grain, sorghum isn't the best option for porridge as it doesn't break down or get mushy easily. As a flour, sorghum is integral to my gluten-free flour mixes. You can also pop it like popcorn!
Try This: Sorghum 'Couscous' with Tahini Dressing
According to the Whole Grains Council, fresh corn is considered a vegetable and dried corn is a grain. Corn is a popular crop: in 2016, worldwide production reached over 1 billion metric tons, with the United States being the largest producer of corn in the world. Corn is found in processed foods, is used as a fuel source and has been transformed into paper products and packaging.
Corn is rich in antioxidants, particularly lutein and zeaxanthin, which are important for our eye health. It's a good source of fibre and prebiotics that help nourish the friendly and beneficial bacteria in our colons.
How to Use It: Dried corn is used to make tortillas, grits and polenta. It also bakes a great gluten-free cornbread. I buy non-GMO corn, as corn is one of the most genetically modified foods on the planet.
Try This: One Bowl Cornbread Muffins
This teeny grain is the size of a poppy seed and grows in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Teff can thrive in difficult and dry conditions, and when plants are hardy, they typically have nutrients that help us become hardy too. Teff is especially high in calcium, a mineral that's crucial to bone health, as well as important for muscle and nerve function. It's also rich in amino acids, fibre and omega-3 fatty acids.
How to Use It: Teff is famously used to make injera, a fermented pancake-like flatbread. It's also lovely as a porridge, or you can cook it and fold it into baked goods and burgers.
Try This: Teff + Buckwheat Wraps
Grains are part of the grass family, while pseudograins are not. These pseudograins aren't technically grains, but since they're often used like other true grains they're typically referred to as such.
Quinoa has risen in popularity over the last couple of years, moving from a weird grain that no one could pronounce to being a staple in many homes and on restaurant menus. It's an incredibly nutrient-rich food, prized by the Incas as "the mother of all grains." Quinoa is a complete protein, meaning it has all of the essential amino acids we need to thrive. It's also packed with antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, calcium, iron, magnesium and manganese.
It's widely available in most grocery stores and comes in a variety of colours: white, red and black. You can also find quinoa flakes (they're light and thin) and quinoa flour.
How to Use It: Quinoa cooks in about 12 to 15 minutes, so it's as quick as white rice but with more nutritional value. Serve it as a side for veggies or meat, add it to salads, make a quinoa pilaf, stir it into soups and stews, toast it and use in granola bars, use it to make sushi instead of rice, or cook it as a porridge. If you find quinoa bitter, try rinsing it well before you cook it; this helps to eliminate its saponins.
Try This: Miso-Sesame-Ginger Greens + Quinoa Bowls
Even though buckwheat has wheat in its name, it's gluten-free (it's actually related to rhubarb). Buckwheat is a small, triangle-shaped pseudograin that has a variety of health-promoting properties. It contains antioxidants, immune-boosting zinc, manganese and copper, a mineral that helps integrate iron into red blood cells. Rutin, a flavonoid in buckwheat, supports cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure. It’s an excellent source of fibre and has prebiotic properties, supporting the digestive tract, and it can help lower blood sugar levels.
You can find buckwheat raw or toasted (often labeled as kasha). I personally prefer raw buckwheat, as the flavour is more mild and neutral.
How to Use It: Cook up a batch of buckwheat and use it in soups, stews, or pilafs. When ground (you can do this with a blender or spice grinder), buckwheat makes a porridge that's similar to cream of wheat or polenta. You can add raw buckwheat to granola bars or granola, or soak it overnight along with chia seeds and hemp seeds for a lovely cold porridge/pudding.
Amaranth originated in Peru about 8,000 years ago and was highly valued by the Aztecs in Mexico. It's a nutritionally-rich pseudograin, high in protein, calcium, iron and magnesium. Research indicates amaranth can help lower blood pressure and its content of phytosterols can help reduce cholesterol.
How to Use It: Amaranth makes a great porridge and you can "pop" it by toasting it dry in a skillet. You can also add it to salads, soups and stews. Amaranth cooks quickly (about 15–20 minutes) but never fully loses its crunch, so don't be alarmed.
Try This: Blueberry Amaranth Porridge
Wild rice is a grass that originated in the northern Great Lakes area in the U.S. and Canada. Like the other gluten-free grains and pseudograins I've mentioned, wild rice is a good source protein, fibre and B vitamins, as well as folate, magnesium, manganese and zinc. It tends to be quite expensive, so I don't buy it very often, but I love its nutty flavour and chewiness. You can also find wild rice added into rice mixes.
How to Use It: Wild rice needs more water; use at least a 3:1 ratio of water to rice. It's great on its own as a side, or when used in salads, soups, stews and burgers.
Try This: Wild Rice Stuffed Portobellos
General Gluten-Free Grain Tips
- Mix it up! Combine two or three different gluten-free grains in one pot (as long as they have a similar cooking time), or cook them separately and mix together.
- Batch cook. Cook a large batch of a gluten-free grain each week to use in different recipes. You can also freeze them for later.
- Rotate. Don't eat the same gluten-free grain every week; rotate through new ones for nutrition and culinary variety.
- Store them properly. Even though whole grains are dry, they still contain oils and other nutrients that will eventually go stale or rancid. If you bulk buy grains, keep what you need in a jar in the pantry and store the rest in the fridge or freezer.
- Soak your grains. Soak your grains for several hours before rinsing and cooking. This helps to remove some of the phytic acid in them, which is compounds that can interfere with digestion. Pre-soaking grains also reduces cooking time.
Check out more of Sondi’s Allergen-Friendly Guides and Recipe Remixes for great ideas on revamping your favourite recipes to make them allergen friendly!
- A Guide to Understanding Fats: Myths and Reality
- A Allergen-Friendly Guide: 14 Alternative Ways to Use Turmeric
- An Allergen-Friendly Guide to Dried Fruit
Sondi Bruner is a holistic nutritionist, freelance writer, food blogger and author of the Anti-Inflammatory Diet in 21, The Candida Free Cookbook and Action Plan, co-author of The Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Action Plans as well as multiple e-books on healthy eating. She educates people who follow allergen-friendly diets about how to eat simply, deliciously and safely, allowing them to rediscover the pleasure of food. When she’s wearing her writer’s hat, she works with natural health brands to create content that will help their customers live fulfilling, healthful lives. Find out more at www.sondibruner.com. Or you can follow Sondi on Facebook or Twitter.