While today we wonder, "what are whole grains?," not long ago our human ancestors ate a largely vegan diet made up of whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
They probably occasionally hunted for small animals, but the bulk of their diet consisted of plants. By the 1950s, the human diet completely changed and began to revolve around convenience foods made from white flours, rather than whole grain flours.
What are whole grains? Most of the grains that we find in grocery stores and restaurants are bleached to be white and then enriched to have some amount of nutrition. This process strips the whole grains of their healthful properties and indeed, makes many of the breads, pastas, cakes, cookies, and other floured items, pretty unhealthy.
Deciding to eat a whole foods based vegan diet doesn't mean you have to give up on baked goods. There are many great stores that sell whole grain breads and pastas, and you can certainly learn how to make your own.
I have always liked brown bread over white bread, but I didn't make a practice of eating brown pasta until a few years ago. I will admit that at first the taste was much different: a little heavier, nuttier, and denser. But, it only took me eating it about 3-4 times for me to adjust, and now I think regular semolina pasta is bland and mushy tasting.
The same happened when I stopped eating white rice. Now I don't even like the taste of what was once familiar to me. The more you try different whole grains, the more a normal facet of your life they will become.
Because I get so many questions that basically amount to asking me "what are whole grains," I've prepared a list of whole grains that are easy to find in most grocery stores.
Amaranth is a gluten-free whole grain that is high in fiber, protein, calcium, and iron. It is one of the grains that has a higher balance of amino acids than milk, so it is a great source of vegetable protein. It has a slightly sweet and nutty taste.
It is an ancient grain as it was used by the Aztecs to make beer, popcorn, flour, and in religious ceremonies. It is now available in its whole form, as pictured here, as well as ground into powder and added into many cereal products on the market.
You can see that the grain itself is shaped like a tiny light-colored ball. Normally I find it in either in the bulk section or near the packaged rices.
Barley is a grass that is a great source of soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber helps to aid digestion and lowers cholesterol levels, perhaps by interfering with the absorption of fat and cholesterol in the stomach. It is also high in selenium, which is an antioxidant, and in beta-glutan, which helps lower bad cholesterol in your body.
Barley originated in Southeast Asia and Ethiopia more than 10,000 years ago. It was used as food for humans and animals, and for making alcohol and medicine.
Today, you can find barley in flour, meal, and pearled. The most nutritious is the hulled form, which has the outer peel intact. It has a chewy texture and the pearled version looks like an oat.
Buckwheat is a tricky whole grain-- it's actually a seed, not a whole grain, but since it is cooked like one, so we will include it in this section.
It has more protein that rice, millet, corn, and wheat and is low on the glycemic scale, which means that it doesn't make your blood sugar rise after eating it. Buckwheat is also high in insoluble fiber, and higher in vitamins and minerals than other grains. It is another gluten-free "grain," is considered a great cholesterol-lowering food, and is high in flavonoids that help with heart health. It's very good for you!
This picture shows the raw buckwheat kernel. You can find it in a few other forms... Kasha, which is the Eastern European version of it and is often cooked as a hot cereal or stew. It has also been around for at least 1,000 years in Asia, and they have made it into Soba noodles. Both Kasha and Soba are delicious and can be found in the grocery store.
Bulgur is a common grain you'll see in grocery stores, but it's actually a byproduct of the wheat berry. I wanted to put it on this page so you could see the texture of this product. It looks like little broken pieces of whole wheat pasta.
Bulgur has been produced in the Middle East for at least 4000 years, and is used in many recipes. You have probably had tabbouleh before-- that is bulgur.
It is high in vitamins and minerals and low in calories. It also has tons of fiber. The texture is slightly chewy and nutty, and it is very filling.
Millet is one of the oldest whole grains and was used back to 2700 BC in China and was grown around the world as well. A huge portion (about 1/3) of the world still eats millet as a large part of their diet. In the US, we are only recently starting to discover the health benefits of millet.
It is high in magnesium, which lowers blood pressure, helps with asthma, and aids in migraine headaches. The seeds of millet are rich in phytochemicals and niacin, which help to lower cholesterol. It is highly digestible, gluten-free, and full of fiber.
In the picture, you can see that the millet grain is a small yellow ball with a dot on top. It's found in most grocery stores or international markets.
Oats have a great reputation for helping to lower blood cholesterol levels, which is because of a property called Inosital. They are also very high in calcium, potassium and magnesium, and B complex, which all help the nervous system. Oats are also high in fiber and have great antioxidants that are great for your heart.
I love oat bran, and my boyfriend is a steel cut oats fan. They are two of several cuts of oats that are easy to find at the grocery store. The picture to the right is of basic rolled oats. You can also find oat groats, which are the hulled, whole oat kernels. When the hull is removed, you can see a whole grain oat beneath.
Quinoa is a superfood... it's highly nutritious and has everything the body requires: carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. It is has all of the amino acids in abundance, and so it is considered a complete protein. It is gluten-free, and is full of phytonutrients, antioxidants, and helps balance blood sugar.
Quinoa is another ancient whole grain and was cultivated by the Incas 5000 years ago. It is pronounced "keen-wah." It is also another trick grain-- it's actually a seed and is related to spinach.
Uncooked quinoa looks very similar to millet-- it's off-white and has a small line or dot on the top. When it is cooked, that line, the germ, comes out and makes little C-shapes in the dish. It can be startling if you don't know to look for it! You can see the germ in the picture to the right. I love quinoa because it can take the flavor of virtually any dish and it's so healthy.
What are whole grain wheat berries? They are the whole grain that we are most familiar with in the US. It is highly cultivated, and so the most nutritious form of it is the whole grain, when it hasn't been refined. You really get very little nutrition from any bleached white flour products like breads, noodles and pastas, baked goods like rolls or biscuits, and cookies. Of course, these can all be made with whole wheat flour or any flours made from other whole grains.
When wheat is in its whole form, it is a good source of dietary fiber, manganese, and magnesium. Whole wheat is made into a variety of products, including some great grain-types that are easy to cook like couscous, bulgur, and noodles.
Also, parts of the wheat are very healthy as well. Wheat germ, in any form, is a great source of many vitamins, including vitamin E, most of the B vitamin group, folic acid, and a number of minerals such as iron, calcium, zinc.