If you learned about nutrition or glanced at a food pyramid at school or the doctor’s office, you might remember that the base of the pyramid belongs to carbohydrates. There are many types of grains that contain carbs to fulfill that part of your diet.
While the Atkins or the Keto diet may villainize carbohydrates, they are essential to a healthy, well-rounded diet.
They’re also delicious, versatile, and comforting. One of the largest groups of carbohydrates in our diets is grains. Grains are the seed of plants that we harvest and dry in mass quantities for consumption.
Seeds are the life force of the plant and thus the powerhouse that stores a complete bounty of vitamins and minerals. Since we harvest the seeds, we benefit from them as much as the plant does.
Depending on where you live and the ecology of your home country, you probably have a few staple grains. However, there are many types of grains around the world, and each has a unique texture and nutritional value.
I’ll start with the most pervasive grain that is one most of the globe knows and loves.
Wheat is the seeds of a type of grass, of which there are many species. According to the UN, common wheat is the most traded grain in the world.
It’s also one of the most ancient grains for consumption, first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent in 9600 BCE. Wheat has 20 varieties, with seven main types harvested for consumption.
Common wheat is the wheat that makes flour. Flour exists as whole wheat or white flour and is used to make bread, crackers, pasta, cakes, porridge, and many more household staples.
I can’t imagine a world without pizza, pasta, cake, or crusty bread!
An integral grain for beer fans and ranchers alike, barley is a grain that’s even older than wheat.
It’s also seed from a species of grass that was first cultivated over 10,000 years ago. It’s the main ingredient in cattle and chicken feed and beer.
Ancient civilizations prioritized beer over bread! While the human consumption of barley is a fermented beverage, barley is making a comeback as a hearty edible grain.
One of my favorite soups is mushroom barley soup. Barley is a nutrient-rich whole grain with a great bite and chew.
Of course, you can double your barley intake by pairing your soup with your favorite beer.
Oats are yet another seed that sprouts grass and is an essential part of human and animal consumption.
They’re cultivated and dried for use as a cereal which you can eat raw or cooked.
Everyone who’s ever seen an ad for oatmeal knows that oats help lower cholesterol, especially oat bran.
You’ll find oats in the grocery sold for porridge. You’ll find oat bran cereals, oat bran muffins, and oatmeal raisin cookies. Their high soluble fiber content helps regulate digestion.
If I want to regulate my digestive track, I know an oat bran muffin and a cup of coffee will do the trick.
Originating from the Andean Mountain region of South America, quinoa was cultivated for human and animal consumption by the Incans, hence its Quechua name.
Quinoa is a flowering plant in the same family as amaranth, which you will soon read about on this list!
Quinoa has skyrocketed in popularity over the past few decades. It is a protein-rich and nutrient-rich grain that beats out any other grain in terms of nutritional value. It’s toted as a superfood grain.
Quinoa comes in various colors, including red, off-white, and black. All color varieties taste the same and offer the same small, beady texture.
I like to use it instead of couscous as a side dish or a Mediterranean salad.
While wheat is the most traded grain in the world, corn is the most produced grain in the world.
Originating in Mexico over 10,000 years ago, corn, or maize, is a species of grass. If you’re from the Midwest, you’re aware of what corn stalks look like!
Corn’s uses are endless, and the bulk of corn production is to produce cattle feed and high-fructose corn syrup, which is in most processed food.
In its purest form, corn has various varieties, from blue corn to hominy to yellow sweet corn.
The Mexicans even harvest a fungus that grows on corn called Huitlacoche, which looks like giant black corn kernels and tastes like a hybrid of corn and mushroom.
I’m from the South, so I use cornmeal to make cornbread or corn fritters.
Originating as a food source in China nearly 13000 years ago, rice remains a staple food source for every continent.
It’s also grass like wheat or barley but has very different growth and cultivation methods.
Rice fields use flooding for cultivation and pest control. Thus, rice thrives in tropical countries and river basins that receive heavy rain seasons.
Rice has countless varieties. While you may be familiar with white and brown, in Asia and Africa numerous other varieties exist that differ in texture and flavor.
Brown rice is a whole grain that encompasses the seed and its hull, offering more nutrients and fiber.
Amaranth is a New World plant with dozens of species, both edible and inedible.
The edible form of amaranth was first cultivated by the Aztecs in central Mexico during the pre-Columbian era.
As you’ve read above, quinoa is in the amaranth family. Amaranth, like quinoa, is very high in protein.
Amaranth in its dried form is a tiny, couscous-sized white ball with little taste and the consistency of Styrofoam.
It’s a wonderful additive to cereal. In Mexico, you’ll find amaranth everywhere in the form of bars called barras de Alegria.
I love barras de Alegria, rectangular bars of amaranth tightly packed, studded with dried fruit and seeds, then bound with honey and dried. They’re like healthy and light rice crispy treats.
Don’t be fooled by its name; buckwheat is not a type of wheat, nor is it a grass.
Buckwheat is a flowering plant originally cultivated in Asia. It plays a large role in Indian, Asian, and Eastern European cuisine.
Its uses include food and beverages. It is a nutrient-rich complex carbohydrate that’s processed into flour or flakes used in many snacks, main dishes, and distilled beverages.
For instance, Indians use buckwheat to make Roti, a popular flatbread.
The Japanese use buckwheat to make soba noodles and a popular alcoholic drink called Soju.
A part of the wheat and barley family, rye is one of the first grains cultivated in Mesopotamia around 13000 years ago.
Rye is a grass, and its seed has a very distinct flavor. It’s a key ingredient in bread, flour blends, whiskey, vodka, and beer.
As a whole grain, rye has similar benefits to oats, with high mineral and vitamin content and lots of cholesterol-lowering fiber.
Whether you’re a fan of mixed drinks or deli sandwiches, rye imparts a memorable flavor.
I love rye bread for all my sandwiches. Its taste is inimitable and complements cold cuts, mustard, and pickled vegetables.
Farro is the combination of three wheat varieties: einkorn, emmer, and spelt.
It’s a popular staple in southern Italy. Farro’s component wheat grains thrive in mountainous regions.
Farro has grown in popularity, and you can buy it in many specialty grocery stores.
Farro is a large grain, the length of a grain of rice with twice or three times the thickness.
It has a hearty, chewy texture and a delightfully nutty flavor. You’ll see farro used in soups and salads in Italy.
It’s a newfound treasure in my kitchen. I love throwing cooked farro into a salad with almonds, dried cranberries, arugula, tomatoes, olives, and vinaigrette.
Like farro, bulgur is a combination of various wheat species.
However, where farro is made with hulled wheat varieties, bulgur is the culmination of combining wheat groats.
Groats are the hull of a grain, that is, the nutrient-rich outer shell that distinguishes whole grains from their simple counterparts.
Thus, bulgur is a very healthy grain that includes three different wheat groat species all parboiled together.
Bulgur is popular in the Middle East. Since parboiling is part of its processing for human consumption, you don’t have to cook it.
You just soak bulgur in hot water, and it absorbs and puffs up to its hearty, fluffy texture. I always have some on hand to make tabbouleh.
Millet is a popular type of grain in Africa and India due to its drought-resistant properties.
It’s easier to grow than wheat while providing similar nutrient properties. There are numerous strains of edible millet, and each world region has its mainstay.
Finger millet is popular in East Africa, while Pearl millet is popular in West Africa.
Millet looks and feels like a cross between bulgur and rice. It has a sweet, corn-like flavor with some nuttiness.
Like most grains, millet is subtle and bland and acts as a versatile foundation for many stews, meats, and vegetables.
I think its sweet flavor pairs well with spicy beef stews or lentils.
Sorghum is a form of millet. It originated in the African nation of Sudan and is a primary grain for consumption in East Africa.
Sorghum has various species, some are used to create grains, some are used for whole plant consumption, and others are used as plant feed.
Sorghum has the highest protein content of all millet grains and it’s one of the richest sources of antioxidants.
Studies have shown that communities with high sorghum consumption have the lowest rates of cancer.
Sorghum can be a grain, syrup, or flour. You can make noodles and bread with it, or enjoy it as a popped snack, like popcorn.
If you recall, spelt is one of the strains of hulled wheat in farro. It’s also used on its own as flour or fermented grain in Bavarian beer.
Spelt originated as a food source in Central Europe and is a popular flour for bread and beer in the Bavarian region.
Like wheat, spelt comes as a whole grain, totted for its nutrient-rich content. Spelt bread is seen as healthy food and is widely available in loaves and buns in Austria and Germany.
Spelt flour is lighter than wheat flour and has a slightly sour taste. I think it makes for a delightfully light-textured bread with almost a sourdough taste.
Originating in North Africa and the Mediterranean Middle East, Freekeh is an ancient grain that offers more protein than quinoa, not to mention the highest amount of fiber and iron.
I’m surprised it hasn’t become the new “it” food for the health-conscious industry.
Freekeh is a form of green wheat called durum wheat, whose seeds are soft when cultivated.
The seeds undergo drying and roasting before being sold for consumption.
You can eat them as a cooked grain like rice or quinoa, or ground as flour. I think they have a unique smokiness and a stronger flavor than all the other grains on my list.