5 Healthy Grains You've Never Heard Of

The government keeps begging us to eat more whole grains — ideally, three servings a day, according to the United States Department of Agriculture's 2005 Food Guide. But if you're getting bored with ordering brown rice with your Chinese food, or fixing oatmeal for breakfast, there are plenty of alternatives.

While you're probably familiar with grains like barley and quinoa, there's a world of unusual varieties of grains out there that, chances are, you've never even heard of, let alone know what to do with in the kitchen.

Check out these five varieties, which you can easily find in your local health food store, healthy chains like Whole Foods, or online through retailers like Bob's Red Mill.

Amaranth

With a peppery taste and a high protein content, this tiny, beadlike grain cooks quickly and can even be popped like corn, a common street snack in South America. In Peru, it's even fermented and used to make beer. Its lack of gluten makes it good for those with Celiac disease, and in addition to having 15 to 18 percent protein content, it contains lysine and methionine, two essential amino acids. Amaranth also has a higher fiber content than wheat and contains other nutrients like calcium, iron, potassium and vitamins A and C. It's very easily digestible, which makes it good for those recovering from an illness. To cook amaranth, combine 1 cup of amaranth with two cups of liquid and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes.

Kamut®

Yes, that's a registered trademark symbol — Kamut is actually a branded product, supposedly discovered from an Egyptian tomb back in the 1940s. Called "King Tut's Wheat" and shown as a novelty at local fairs, an agricultural company finally planted the grain and started selling pasta, bread and cereals made from the giant strain of wheat. Kamut has high protein levels and lipids, as well as respectable concentrations of Vitamin E, amino acids, and Selenium. Kamut has a buttery flavor and can be found in pasta and breads, which are often suitable for those with wheat intolerances. For the best cooking results, soak a cup of Kamut overnight in 4 cups of liquid, then simmer 45 to 60 minutes.

Millet

You probably have heard of millet — as a treat for your pet parakeet. As ancient as the Bible, millet is an important staple in China, Japan, Africa, India and other areas, but in the U.S., it is more often used as bird and cattle feed. Which is too bad, because it's not only very nutritious (containing protein, fiber, B-complex vitamins, lecithin, iron, magnesium and potassium), but it has a sweet, nutty flavor and is fast and easy to cook. To make millet, try toasting it for a few minutes first to increase the nutty flavor, then simmering one cup of the grain in 2 ½ cups of water for 25 to 35 minutes.

Milo

Also known as Sorghum, this is a grain for human consumption in other parts of the world, although in the U.S., where it was introduced by African slaves in the early 17th century, much of it is used for animal feed and as packing and building material. But it's gluten-free, so those with celiac disease can use it in flour form to bake breads. Milo can also be popped like popcorn or brewed into beer. It's high in fiber and protein, and a one-cup serving contains nearly half of the recommended daily requirement of iron. Cook one cup of Milo in four cups of water for between 25 to 40 minutes.

Teff

If you've had Ethiopian food, chances are you've eaten teff — it's what's used to make the spongy injera flatbread used to mop up stewy dishes. A type of millet that has a sweet, molasses flavor and a smaller grain, teff is ideal in porridge, baked goods or as a substitute for polenta or grits. Teff has double the iron of other grains and twenty times the calcium; in fact, a cup of cooked teff has more calcium than a cup of milk. Prepare teff by combining ½ cup of teff with 2 cups of water and simmering, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes.

Want to learn more about whole grains? The Whole Grains Council has a wealth of information about grains, from cooking instructions to descriptions to nutritional content. 

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