tl/dr - "Grain" is a term used to indicate that a seed is sold and traded on a worldwide scale. Any seed can be considered "grain." The term "grain" is most commonly applied to corn, wheat, oats, and soybeans. When someone gives the advice to eat more "whole grains," this does not limit you to corn, wheat, oats, and soybeans, but a world of seeds (ie. beans, lentils, pulses, rice, and more) eaten in their whole, unrefined state.
"Cereal" grains are the seeds of plants in the grass family, most common: Corn, wheat, oats, rye, rice, barley.
"Gluten" is found in wheat, barley, rye, and oats.
A quick Google search shows that quinoa is most certainly a seed, but classified as a "pseudo-cereal" type of grain.
Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa, or goosefoot) is in fact not technically a cereal grain at all, but is instead what we call a "pseudo-cereal" – our name for foods that are cooked and eaten like grains and have a similar nutrient profile. Botanically, quinoa is related to beets, chard and spinach, and in fact the leaves can be eaten as well as the grains. It's a testimonial to how far quinoa has come in the last five years, that most people now know it's pronounced KEEN-wah, not kwin-OH-a.
Side note: Quinoa originates from the Andes Mountains not far from where potatoes were born. How did such a great civilization rise with these two "non-paleo" plants as staples?
Wikipedia has a good definition:
Grains are small, hard, dry seeds, with or without attached hulls or fruit layers, harvested for human or animal consumption. Agronomists also call the plants producing such seeds "grain crops". The two main types of commercial grain crops are cereals such as wheat and rye, and legumes such as beans and soybeans. Ubiquity of grain as a food source encouraged use of the term to describe other particles with volume or mass similar to an individual seed.
I guess it's safe to say that all grains are seeds, but not all seeds are grains, but any seed could easily become a grain if the demand were there.
I had no idea before reading this Wikipedia article yesterday that beans and legumes are considered "grain." Did any of you?
Grains are further deliniated by calling some of them cereal grains.
A cereal is any grass cultivated for the edible components of its grain (botanically, a type of fruit called a caryopsis), composed of the endosperm, germ, and bran. Cereal grains are grown in greater quantities and provide more food energy worldwide than any other type of crop; they are therefore staple crops. Some plants often referred to as cereals, like buckwheat and quinoa, are considered instead pseudocereals, since they are not grasses, however they are still considered grains.
To further refine our definition, all grains are seeds (but not all seeds are grain), and seeds from certain grass is considered a cereal grain.
The main cereal grain crops of the world are wheat, corn, and rice. These are followed closely by oats, teff, amaranth, and quinoa.
Beans and Legumes
While I have never heard anyone call a bean a grain, it kind of makes sense now. I grew up on a farm in Ohio. Soybeans, a legume, were one of the leading grain crops. From Wikipedia on "Beans:"
Seeds called "beans" are often included among the crops called "pulses" (legumes), although a narrower prescribed sense of "pulses" reserves the word for leguminous crops harvested for their dry grain.
But it looks like "beans" are simply any seed that matures inside a seedpod, like peas or greenbeans.
Legumes, are seeds that mature in a pod. Some of them are grains. Sweet peas and greenbeans are technically not "grain" because they are sold in an unripe state, considered "vegetables." Confused yet? What really makes a legume and legume, though, is that it is a plant that belongs to the Leguminosae family of plants which includes:
- Kidney bean, navy bean, pinto bean, haricot bean (Phaseolus vulgaris)
- Lima bean, butter bean (Phaseolus lunatus)
- Adzuki bean, azuki bean (Vigna angularis)
- Mung bean, golden gram, green gram (Vigna radiata)
- Black gram, urad (Vigna mungo)
- Scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus)
- Ricebean (Vigna umbellata)
- Moth bean (Vigna aconitifolia)
- Tepary bean (Phaseolus acutifolius)
- Horse bean (Vicia faba equina)
- Broad bean (Vicia faba)
- Field bean (Vicia faba)
- Garden pea (Pisum sativum var. sativum)
- Protein pea (Pisum sativum var. arvense)Chickpea, garbanzo, Bengal gram (Cicer arietinum)
- Dry cowpea, black-eyed pea, blackeye bean (Vigna unguiculata )
- Pigeon pea, Arhar/Toor, cajan pea, Congo bean, gandules (Cajanus cajan)
- Lentil (Lens culinaris)
- Bambara groundnut, earth pea (Vigna subterranea)
- Vetch, common vetch (Vicia sativa)
- Lupins (Lupinus spp.)
- Minor pulses, including:
It would appear from this discussion that the term "grain" is simply a designation that a plant seed is grown on a large scale, stores well, is easy to transport, and is traded on global markets as a commodity. If the world suddenly fell in love with pumpkin seeds, we would have a new grain. The term "grain" has no bearing on what type of plant it came from or its health and nutrition properties.
Why, then, do several dieting strategies rely on banning "grain?" What's wrong with this stuff?
Common Arguments Against Grain
Phytates – "Phytates, also found in lesser quantities in nuts and seeds, are not inherently damaging, but they do bind to dietary minerals and prevent their absorption (from PaleoLeap)."
Not part of human history - "...they are completely and utterly pointless in the context of a healthy diet. In fact, if your average unhealthy person were to ask for the top three things to avoid in order to get healthy, I would tell them to stop smoking, to stop drinking their calories (as soda or juice), and to stop eating grains. Period. Full stop. They really are that bad (Mark's Daily Apple)."
Gluten - Apparently any protein found in grain is bad for us. "While there is no gluten or gliadin in corn and oats, they have related proteins that have similar effects. Corn products in particular are not immunologically safe for people following a gluten-free lifestyle (Wheat Belly blog)."
Toxic - "It’s a common observation that the toxic grains, especially wheat, can produce a potbelly or “beer belly.” Rice doesn’t seem to do that (Perfect Health Diet)."
Anti-nutrients - "...cereal grains contain a variety of “antinutrients” which actually adversely affect health. I have described these effects in a paper I wrote called “Cereal Grains: Humanity’s Double Edged Sword (The Paleo Diet).”
As I looked for these items of why grains are so bad, it sort of dawned on me that the early proponents of these grain-free and paleo diets did not really have a good understanding what they were banning when they just discussed "grain." Also, it would appear that they looked at components of whole grains that may be harmful and applied them across the board to show that all grain is bad. "Ricin, a deadly toxin, comes from a bean!"
The healthy, nutritious aspect of grain is destroyed when these foods are refined and turned into white flour or when eaten without regard to preparation. Corn, for instance, is best when nixtamalized.
The primary nutritional benefits of nixtamalization arise from the alkaline processing involved. These conditions convert corn's bound niacin to free niacin, making it available for absorption into the body, thus preventing pellagra. Alkalinity also reduces the amount of the protein zein available to the body, which improves the balance among essential amino acids, although the overall amount of protein is reduced (Wikipedia).
Sprouting of grains is known to make them a healthier alternative to raw grains. Some grains/seeds/legumes/beans should never be consumed raw, while others are commonly eaten raw. But I think that when we discuss "whole grains" we are really saying that we eat the seeds of plants in a manner that does not rely on heavy processing which removes the outer covering (bran) and the oils, germ, and other components which make them a "whole" food.
|Anatomy of a Grain|
How to get the Whole Grains in your Diet
While I am far from an expert on cooking and eating whole grains, I have been experimenting the past couple of years. Oatmeal is a safe and easy whole grain, especially when you chose oat groats, steel-cut, oat bran, or thick rolled oats. These make a great breakfast food, and can be added uncooked into smoothies or no-bake cookies. Oats that you buy for eating are actually pre-cooked in part of the process that removes the straw husk. Uncooked oats are referred to as "oat berries."
Teff is easily found in supermarkets or online. It's really cool, too. Microscopic little grains, you'll enjoy just looking at it. Cook it like it says on the bag into a sort of pilaf or polenta. Can be used in lots of recipes. The light brown seeds in the background of my blog are teff (next to chia and oat groats).
Easily sourced and tasty, cook and eat it like oatmeal or add to recipes.
If you've given up on bread and want it back, learn to make your own using sourdough starters and the various whole grain flours like rye, spelt, or wheat. Ezekial Bread is sold in most supermarkets and seems a good, healthy choice. I get Dave's Killer Bread on occasion.
A whole year of whole grains!
Check this resource out: The Whole Grains Council has recently started highlighting a different whole grain each month. Check it out for excellent ideas.
|Grain of the Month Calendar!|
WHY should we eat grains?
For about the past 10 years, grains have gotten a bad rap from some dieting circles, "Paleo" in particular. But the preponderance of the evidence suggests that whole grains are an important part of the human health nutrition puzzle. As Jane Karlsson frequently points out, there are metals and vitamins found in the whole portions of grains and seeds that cannot be found when eating a low carb, meat-heavy or Westernized diet of refined foods. The shift away from overly processed foods is great, but to banish whole foods is folly.
Study after study show that whole grains are good for us! [If you find an abstract, and want the full text, just ask and I'll get it to you.]
Putting the Whole Grain Puzzle Together: Health Benefits Associated with Whole Grains
Whole grains are rich sources of vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, lignans, β-glucan, inulin, numerous phytochemicals, phytosterols, phytin, and sphingolipids (3, 15). The bran is the multi-layered outer skin of the grain that protects the germ and the endosperm from damage, such as sunlight, pests, water, and disease. The bran contains phenolic compounds, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The endosperm is the largest component of the whole grain; it contains carbohydrates (starch), protein, vitamins, and minerals and serves as the food supply for the germ and provides energy for the rest of the plant. The germ refers to the embryo, the part that forms the new plant, and contains vitamins, some protein, minerals, and fat. [Full text at link above, great paper to read!]
Whole-grain and blood lipid changes in apparently healthy adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies.
Conclusion: Consumption of whole-grain diets lowers LDL cholesterol and TC, but not HDL cholesterol or triglycerides, compared with consumption of non-whole-grain control diets. Whole-grain oat appears to be the most effective whole grain for lowering cholesterol.
Association between dietary whole grain intake and risk of mortality: two large prospective studies in US men and women.
Conclusion: These data indicate that higher whole grain consumption is associated with lower total and CVD mortality in US men and women, independent of other dietary and lifestyle factors. These results are in line with recommendations that promote increased whole grain consumption to facilitate disease prevention.
Whole grains and human health.
Whole grains have high concentrations of dietary fibre, resistant starch, and oligosaccharides. Whole grains are rich in antioxidants including trace minerals and phenolic compounds and these compounds have been linked to disease prevention. Other protective compounds in whole grains include phytate, phyto-oestrogens such as lignan, plant stanols and sterols, and vitamins and minerals.
Why whole grains are protective: biological mechanisms.
...whole grains contain many other compounds that may protect against chronic disease. These compounds include phytate, phyto-oestrogens such as lignan, plant stanols and sterols, and vitamins and minerals.
Over the past couple of years, I've heard lots and lots of people say that their health has improved when they removed gluten from their diet.
There's been lots written on the topic of gluten sensitivities, and I think it's worth looking into to avoid gluten if you think it helps. I've avoided gluten for long periods, and eaten it for long periods recently. Gluten does not seem to be a trigger of gut dysfunction or bad health for me, but I do avoid refined, white wheat as much as humanly possible. When dining out, perhaps a slice or two of bread.
You'll have to decide for yourself whether gluten is problematic. But hopefully now you see there is a world of "whole grains" beyond those that contain gluten, namely wheat, barley, and rye.
I realize I just scratched the surface on the healthfulness of whole grains and the diets that avoid them. Perhaps if you have been avoiding grains of all types it's time to start adding them back by experimenting with grains you didn't even know were grain. And remember, any diet that eliminates an entire segment of whole, real foods is not a diet that humans will thrive on long-term.
Let's hear your thoughts...what did I miss?