5 Trendy (and Seriously Healthy) Alternatives to Traditional Grains


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Whole grains are an integral part of a healthy diet -- if you remember, they make up the hefty bottom portion of the food pyramid you studied in grammar school -- but if you believe just whole wheat and brown rice fall in the healthy part of this category, it's time to discover new horizons.

Perhaps you've noted the frenzy around quinoa? The following five grains and grain-alternatives -- all rich in flavor and nutritious antioxidants, and the talk of nutritionists, foodies and celebrities alike -- are ideal healthy swaps to the standard wheat or rice grain in your favorite bread, pasta, and side dishes.

1. Quinoa

Though quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is a well-established superfood -- it's as nutritious as milk and, despite being a vegetable, is a complete protein -- it hasn't always had the worldwide reach of other grains.

That's because it thrives above 11,000 feet and is mostly grown in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. But while the quinoa business is booming now, the increase in popularity could have negative long-term effects for the farmers that grow it -- unless, of course, you choose sustainably-farmed, Fair Trade options.

The slightly nutty taste and faster-than-rice cooking time (about 15 minutes) make quinoa a fast and healthy option in recipes like Emeril's Quinoa with Butternut Squash.

2. Flax

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It seems like flax is everywhere these days -- from Gwyneth Paltrow telling fans that she gives her two young children a spoonful of lemon flaxseed oil every morning to scientists touting its omega-3 fatty acids for their cancer-fighting properties. (You might not know it, but flax is also the basis for linen, linseed, and linoleum.)

Eating the seeds whole won't do anything for you, though: Try grinding them to add to salads, cereals, and bread dough, or choose a liquid flaxseed oil for all the nutrition (and to help keep excess fat off). A tasty option includes buttermilk marinated chicken breast with flax and wheat germ breading.

3. Buckwheat

Photo: llsimon53/Creative Commons Buckwheat isn't technically a grain -- it's really a part of the rhubarb family, and those tiny pieces are fruit seeds. However, it is often used in place of grains, and is a good alternative for foodies with an allergy to wheat or gluten.

Buckwheat-rich diets have been associated with lower cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure numbers, in part because buckwheat contains rutin, an antioxidant. In the store, you'll see it both roasted (called kasha) and un-roasted (this version has a less earthy taste), and as ground flour -- try the flour in recipes like pancakes with cinnamon spiced apples and walnuts or buckwheat gnocchi with fresh vegetables.

4. Spelt

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Though spelt is part of the wheat family, it's so distantly related that some gluten-allergic eaters can chow down on it with no problem. Thanks to its flavorful taste, it's an increasingly popular choice for bread dough, cookies, pizza crust, and pasta. (It's also hardier than wheat -- and grows just fine without added fertilizers -- so it lends itself well to organic growing practices.)

Choose spelt over traditional grains for an added boost of vitamin B2, manganese, and niacin in dishes including hazelnut pesto with wide spelt noodles.

5. Amaranth

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Like buckwheat, amaranth isn't a grain: This leafy green vegetable, also known as pig weed, is just as likely to turn up as a side dish (for example, stir-fried with garlic).

But amaranth can also be grown in a grain form, with seeds about the size of poppy seeds containing plenty of protein, calcium, and iron. These versatile seeds show up in all kinds of recipes: you can sprout them, pop them, simmer them (try this method with basil and olive oil), or bake with ground amaranth flour in place of unbleached white.

More Green Eating
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