Vegetarian Journal's

Guide to Grains

by Reed Mangels, PhD, RD

Most of us know that we're supposed to eat more grains. We've seen the Food Guide Pyramid with grains as the foundation; we've noted that products boast of their "whole grain goodness".  Why this push? What's so special about grains and about whole grains in particular?

Grain products, including breads, cereals, rice, and pasta, are at the base of the Food Guide Pyramid because we need more servings (6 to 11 or more) from this group of foods than from any other group. Grains provide complex carbohydrates, also called starches, which supply energy. These are low-fat, high-fiber foods which also provide a number of vitamins and minerals. Whole grains are more nutritious than refined grains because nutrients have not been lost in processing. Some nutrients have been added back to refined grains, but often not all the nutrients which were lost are added back.

Just what is a grain? Grains are the seed-bearing fruits of grasses. An inedible husk, also called chaff, is the outermost layer of the grain. When this is removed, the resulting product is sometimes labeled "groats" or "berries". The next layer of a grain is the bran, a protective coating. This layer is rich in fiber. When this layer is removed, the product may be described as pearled or polished. Inside the bran is the endosperm (the starchy part of a grain) and the germ, the part of the grain which is highest in nutrients. When grains are refined, the husk, bran, and germ are removed leaving only the endosperm. Technically speaking, buckwheat, quinoa, and amaranth are fruits and not grains but they are generally included with the grain group.

When you go to buy grains, it will be helpful to know a few commonly used terms. Steel-cut or cracked grains have been cut into smaller bits so they cook faster. Grain flakes or rolled grains are sliced and then flattened between rollers. A grain meal has been ground to a gritty consistency. Bolted meal has been sifted to remove the bran but not the germ. Degerminated meal has had both bran and germ removed. Grits have been steamed and soaked, have had both hulls and germs removed, and have been cut using rollers.

In a hurry? You may think it's just too much work to cook grains. This is not necessarily true. While some grains do require long cooking, this can be reduced by soaking overnight or pressure cooking. Additionally, grains can be cooked in a crockpot and do not require any attention while they are cooking. Quick-cooking grains, which require less than 30 minutes to prepare, include quick brown rice, couscous, quinoa, buckwheat groats (kasha), teff, and bulgur.

All grains are low in fat and contain no cholesterol. They are low in sodium unless salt is added in cooking. They typically have between 5 and 10 grams of protein per cup. We rated grains in terms of their fiber, riboflavin, vitamin B-6, zinc, copper, and iron content. Vegetarians get significant amounts of these nutrients from grains. Our top choices are amaranth, quinoa, barley, triticale, and bulgur.

Tired of rice and pasta? Try cooking some quinoa or millet. Add herbs and spices, vegetables, tofu, seitan, tempeh, and a variety of sauces to make an unending selection of grain dishes.

Table: Grains are listed from highest to lowest score. Score was obtained by adding up the percentage of Daily Values for fiber (Fib), riboflavin (Ribo), vitamin B-6 (vit B-6), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu) and iron (Ir). Foods were ranked for the amount of each nutrient with good sources identified with a +, better sources identified with ++, and the best grain sources identified with +++. na=not available. Grains at the end of the table were missing information for more than 2 nutrients so no score was calculated. Serving size for each grain is 1 cup cooked.

Grain  Score  Calories  Fib  Ribo  Vit B-6  Zn  Cu  Ir
Amaranth  184  364  +++  +++  +++  +++  +++  +++
Quinoa  119  254  ++  +++  ++  +++  +++  +++
Barley, pearled  69  193  +++  ++  +++  ++  +  ++
Triticale  69  322  na  +++  ++  +++  ++  ++
Bulgur  64  151  +++  +  ++  ++  +  ++
Wild rice  62  166  ++  +++  +++  +++  +  +
Millet  59  207  ++  +++  +++  ++  ++  +
Oat bran  56  88  +++  ++  +  ++  +  ++
Brown rice  53  218  ++  +  +++  ++  +  +
Buckwheat groats  52  155  ++  ++  ++  ++  +  +
Rolled wheat  45  142  ++  ++  +  +++  na  ++
Rolled oats  43  145  ++  +  +  ++  +  ++
White rice, enriched  35  242  +  +  +  +  +  ++
Wheat berries  31  84  ++  +  ++  ++  na  +
Couscous  26  176  ++  +  +  +  +  +
Corn grits, enriched  24  145  +  +++  +  +  +  ++
Corn grits, unenriched  12  145  +  +  +  +  +  +
Oat groats  na  232  +++  na  na  na  na  ++
Rye flakes  na  165  +++  na  na  na  na  ++
Steel-cut oats  na  340  +++  na  na  na  na  ++
Teff  na  208  +++  na  na  na  na  +++

Some information for this article was obtained from All-American Waves of Grain by Barbara Grunes and Virginia Van Vynckt, Henry Holt and Company, 1997.