The grains are the most commonly consumed foods worldwide. Wheat, rice, and corn, in that order, are the three largest crops. They are also some of the oldest foods. Knowledge of their use goes back over 10,000 years. Grains are the main human fuel and are a good source of complex carbohydrate, which is slower burning and provides more sustained energy than the simple sugars. These rich sources of starch and fiber are also the cheapest caloric supply for the world masses. The whole (unprocessed) grains provide a healthy amount of B vitamins, vitamin E, and many minerals.

The grains, often known as the “cereal” grains, are the seeds of various grasses. There are three primary parts to each kernel, or seed, of the grains—the central core, or endosperm, which is about 80–85 percent of the grain; the germ and future sprout, about 3 percent; and the bran covering of the grain, approximately 15 percent of the entire kernel. The endosperm, the bulk of the grain, is composed mainly of starch (and some protein) for energy to nourish the future seed. It has the nutrients to help the seed, and we humans, to grow. Though the major portion of the grain, however, it has less of the B vitamins and minerals than the germ and bran coverings, and less fiber as well. So when a grain is refined, most of these nutrients are lost along with the outer layers. The endosperm of wheat, for example, is what is contained in white flour.

The germ is only a small part of the grain, though the most essential part. It is the little embryo at the base of the kernel that is the future life. The rest of the grain is there to serve the germ; the coverings protect it, and the endosperm nourishes it in its new life. The germ actually is the part that grows, sprouts out through the bran covers when moisture and the sun bathe it. It will grow into leaves and continue as the roots go into the soil to gather more moisture and nutrients for continued growth. The germ is also the most concentrated part of the grain in nutrients. It contains protein, oils, and many vitamins and minerals. The germ is high in the B vitamins, particularly thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and pyridoxine. Magnesium, zinc, potassium, and iron are some of the minerals contained in this part of the grain. Wheat germ particularly is high in vitamin E, and wheat germ oil is one of the richest sources. When the grain is broken apart, as in making flour, it is the germ content of the whole wheat flour that is less stable because of potential oxidation of the oils, that is a major reason for the wide use of white flour, which is devoid of the nutrient-rich wheat germ.

The bran of the grain consists of several protective coverings, which add most of the fiber and much of the nutrients as well. These include the B vitamins and some minerals, especially zinc. The outermost layers of the bran are mainly indigestible cellulose fiber and are not really high in nutrients. These layers also come off most grains more easily than the deeper layers, which contain more of the nutrients. Soft milling or hand milling can clean these outermost coverings and improve the digestibility and utilization of the protein and nutrients from the grain.

Another advantage in removing these outer bran coverings is that they also contain most of the phytic acid present in the grains. From our discussion on minerals, we learned that phytic acid can bind minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium in the gut and carry them out through the intestines so that they are not assimilated and utilized. This is not very helpful in people who are not obtaining sufficient nutrients, such as the elderly or younger people on poor diets. Even though bran, usually wheat or sometimes oat bran, is used by many people to add fiber content to the diet to help reduce or prevent constipation, and is known to reduce risks of colon and rectal cancer, I do not recommend its regular, long-term use because of the potential mineral depletion. Rather, I suggest eating more fiber-containing foods, such as the whole grains, vegetables, and most fresh fruits, plus drinking more water. Examples of other high-fiber foods include miller’s bran, with about 40 percent fiber; high-fiber cereals, which may contain up to 30 percent fiber; and whole wheat bread, with about 10 percent fiber. This, particularly the use of high-fiber, whole foods, is overall a more healthful approach to bowel care, cancer prevention, and general nutrition.

Grains are the most basic whole foods of the Earth. The seeds of these grasses, or cereal grains, are a good source of complex carbohydrate, calories, energy, and fiber and a light source of protein. Vitamins B1, B2, and B3 are the B vitamins most plentifully found in grains. Most grains are relatively low in vitamins A and C; however, these are prevalent the vegetables, which go well with grains at meals. Vitamin E is found in the germ of the grain. The whole grains are rich in many minerals, especially magnesium, zinc, iron, and potassium, though calcium, phosphorus, and copper are often present. Rice and wheat are very good sources of hard-to-find selenium.

The fiber content of the whole grains is probably the biggest difference between the natural, or primitive, diet and the industrial, or Westernized, diet, and likely a big difference between poor health and good health.

The native diet averages several times more fiber than the modern, more refined way of eating. And lack of fiber may likely be the most significant cause in the advance of our chronic, serious, deadly diseases.

Medical research has shown that a low-fiber diet correlates with many diseases, and, conversely, an increase in fiber can reduce the risk of those same diseases. The increase in dietary fat and refined flours cannot easily be separated from the lowered dietary fiber, and all of these factors probably contribute to symptoms and diseases such as colon cancer (and possibly other cancers), constipation, hemorrhoids, diverticulitis, gallstones and gall bladder problems, high cholesterol, hypertensive heart disease, ulcers, varicose veins, be discovered. As the fiber coverings of the grain are its vital life protection, the fiber content of our diet may protect us from many common problems. Just keeping our bowels moving regularly is an important daily step toward health. Eating more whole grains and vegetables as the mainstay of our diet is the best way to approach the fiber issue.

There are two main aspects to the topic of protein in the grains. The first is that they do not contain “complete proteins.” This is a relative term since they contain all the essential amino acids, but the proportion of lysine is often low. In the legume section, we mentioned that most beans have a good level of lysine but are low in methionine. So when we eat the grains and legumes together, they complement each other and provide us with good levels of all the essential amino acids. Most cultures in the world have learned this important balance, sometimes painfully through deficiency diseases from not combining these foods. Recent thinking suggests that on the short term, such as a meal, this is not absolutely necessary, but over the Day we need to get this variety of foods to maintain protein balance.

The second aspect of grain protein is that much of it is as gluten. Gluten is a protein-carbohydrate mixture that is contained in wheat, oats, barley, and rye. These glutenous grains tend to have a higher protein content than the nonglutenous ones, such as millet, corn, rice, and buckwheat. Some people have a sensitivity to gluten. This is most often intestinal, though a general allergy, most commonly to wheat or oats, may involve the body’s interaction with the gluten protein. Celiac disease (a type of malabsorption) may in part be generated by an inability to handle gluten grains. Many intestinal symptoms, weight loss, and anemia may result. Usually, symptoms can be alleviated by avoiding the gluten grains and substituting others, such as corn, rice, and millet. However, certain nutritional deficiencies, psychological factors, and other aspects of diet, such as protein-fat ratios, may contribute as well to these intestinal symptoms of celiac disease.

Grain Allergenicity


most common










least common

Grains, though, are consumed without problems by most of the world’s population. They are very versatile foods and are considered the “staff of life,” a term often given to breads. Breads, the heated baked paste (flour) made from the grains, are in some form part of the diet of all populations in the world. From hand milling to using large machinery, breaking down the whole grains into fine powder, or flour, is the beginning process in making all kinds of edibles, such as breads, crackers, tortillas, cereals, pastas, pastries, and cookies. Wheat, of course, is the most commonly used grain, and most breads of the world, especially in our culture, contain wheat or refined wheat flour as the main ingredient. In 1977, it was estimated that nearly one-third of the world’s population obtained at least half of their nutrition from wheat—that is, wheat was the main food in their diets. It is a good overall food, especially the whole wheat, but it must be balanced with other nutrients, protein, vitamin A, and vitamin C, for example, all of which may be consumed in amounts insufficient to sustain health. Another concern, especially in Western cultures, is that many people, children in particular, obtain many of their grains from packaged cereals and refined flour breads, which provide even less nutrition than the whole grain.
And those are all essential to human health. Refined white flour contains about 75 percent of the whole wheat kernels but less than half of their nutrients.

Eating too much of refined grain products also increases consumption of the toxic mineral cadmium in relationship to zinc, as zinc is lost in the outer layers and cadmium, when it is present, is contained in the internal kernel, and so can lead to cadmium toxicity problems. (See discussion of Zinc and
in Chapter 6,

Here are a few suggestions for using the grains and their by-products. First, when using whole grain flours, it is best to refrigerate them so they do not rancidify. This will greatly increase their longevity. Also, most people are not allergic to whole grains, so these more wholesome and nourishing foods may be a good source of fuel. In regard to the whole grain-allergy issue, some allergists and other practitioners theorize that allergies to food may in part be generated by early and excessive intake of processed foods, sugars, refined flours, and pasteurized, homogenized milk.

It is wise to eat more whole grain products, if for no other reason than the increased fiber and nutrients. A taste for the richer and nuttier flavor of whole grains can be reacquired as well. For children, starting them early on whole grain cereal and such foods as cream of wheat or rice, cooked brown rice or oats, can get them started with a healthy base. Many natural foods stores carry all kinds of new, wholesome breakfast cereals in place of many of the high-sugar packaged cereals, to which kids easily become addicted. Some of the better big cereal company brands are the puffed grains, Cheerios, the various grain Chex, Kix, Grape Nuts, and bran cereals. Avoiding sugary foods and refined foods in the early years will help children maintain their taste for natural foods.

In review, the grain foods represent the bulk of the world’s food supply, with wheat, rice, and corn being the three top crops. Whole grains are rich in energy-generating starch and complex carbohydrates, fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, and lots of minerals. Each kernel of grain needs to have all of its parts intact to stay alive, or to keep the potential of life, which it can maintain for many years, perhaps hundreds or even thousands. Once the outer shell is disrupted or the grain is refined, it will slowly decay. But if nourished with water, sun, and good soil, it will generate new life and provide much nourishment for our new life for generations.

Specific Grains

Amaranth Oats









Amaranth. Amaranth is a fairly new grain available in North American food stores (often pearled or polished), but is an ancient food to Central American cultures such as the Aztecs and Mayan Indians. This high-protein, high-iron grain can be cooked whole as a breakfast cereal or served along with vegetables or other foods for lunch or dinner. It is suggested to rinse first and then dry roast before cooking. Ideally, it is best used as a flour for baking, and can be found in breads, cookies, pastas, or tortillas. It is a substitute for wheat and other grains, though it is still a bit more expensive than the more common cereal grains. Besides iron and protein, amaranth is high in calcium, and it contains most of the B vitamins, as well as other minerals. Like most grains, amaranth is a good source of dietary fiber.

This glutenous grain is much used as cattle feed. It is also used to make beer and whiskey. As eaten by humans, barley is most commonly employed in making soups. Its gluten content gives it a pastalike consistency, and barley is a good heat-generating food. In ancient times, barley bread was very popular, especially in Egypt and the Far East. Barley grows well in cold climates, as do buckwheat and rye. Russia cultivates the most barley.

Sprouted barley is high in the sugar maltose, which can be extracted, and the remaining malt syrup can be used to make beer and to sweeten other foods. Barley water has been employed since ancient times for a variety of medicinal purposes.

Pearling is a refining process used to remove the barley’s bran covering. The pearled barley is easier to cook but has less nutrient content than the whole barley. This whole grain contains about 10–15 percent protein, with the remainder being carbohydrate. Niacin and folic acid are the best represented of the B vitamins, while magnesium, calcium, iron, phosphorus, and potassium are barley’s highest minerals.

Buckwheat is not really a grass but a thistle plant that produces fragrant flowers, followed by the buckwheat groats, little fruits each covered by their own fibrous shell. Buckwheat does not have the bran and germ that characterize grains, but its flavor, consistency, and nutrient content are so much like those of the grains that it is essentially treated like one.

The use of the triangular buckwheat groats began in Russia and spread to the Orient and Western Europe, particularly as the mashed and cooked buckwheat dish called “kasha.” Buckwheat can be mixed with other grains, and buckwheat flour can be used to make pancakes and other baked goods. This grain variant is about 15–20 percent protein. It contains a good amount of fiber, an assortment of B vitamins, lots of potassium, and some iron, calcium, manganese, and phosphorus.

Though a true grain, corn is different from the other grains in that its kernels are larger and softer, and they can be eaten fresh, like a vegetable. Dried corn can be ground into a flour or used to grow the next generation of corn stalks. Corn is a real American grain, possibly the only one that originated here, and was used as a primary food by the native American Indians. Corn spread easily to Mexico and South America and has also been grown in Europe and, more recently, in the Eastern world. Corn production has increased greatly in the last century and is now approaching that of wheat and rice. Formerly, it was grown primarily in the southeastern and northwestern United States, but now its cultivation is fairly widespread.

Corn, or maize, has many uses. Eaten fresh, usually steamed or boiled, corn is a delicious summer and autumn treat. Popcorn is a very popular and fairly healthy snack food, low in calories. Its high-fiber content helps intestinal activity. Cornmeal or corn flour can be made into cornbread or corn tortillas. Young corn is high in oil, and corn oil is commonly used in cooking, especially in baked goods, and in margarines. The mash left after the oil is pressed is made into a polenta that is much like cornmeal. Polenta can be mixed with beans to increase the total protein content or with leafy greens to improve the vitamin and mineral content of the meal.

Corn itself is fairly rich in vitamin A. It is about 10–20 percent protein, though mostly carbohydrate. Fresh corn has some vitamin C, folic acid, and other B vitamins, lots of potassium and magnesium, and some iron, zinc, and selenium as well. Actually, much of the manufactured vitamin C in this country is extracted primarily from corn. Cornmeal and corn flour lose the vitamin C and some of the Bs, but the minerals are fairly well retained. Corn oil is usually rich in vitamin E. The niacin in corn is not easily available unless the cornmeal is specially prepared. The American Indians, who used corn as the staple in their diet, were able to prevent pellagra, the vitamin B3 deficiency disease, by pounding, soaking, and boiling the corn into a mineral ash (see Niacin discussion in Chapter 5). This sweet yellow grain, however, can provide a lot of nourishment, especially when combined properly with other foods.

Previously used here mainly as fodder and as birdfeed, millet, also known as sorghum, has recently become a more commonly eaten grain, though its food use goes back many thousands of years in China. A sweetener is extracted from the stalks of sorghum, and these stalks have also been used in making brooms. Millet is a nonglutenous grain. It is the most alkaline of the grains and thus is potentially the least congesting. It is tasty and a good nutrient grain, with nearly 15 percent protein, high amounts of fiber, good amounts of niacin, thiamine, and riboflavin, a little vitamin E, and particularly high amounts of iron, magnesium, and potassium. Millet is a warming grain, helping to heat the body in cold or rainy climates. It is a good winter grain and a healthy one to use more regularly.

Oats also have a growing role in feeding the world’s population. It is fourth among the grains in production, following wheat, rice, and corn. It, like wheat, is a gluten grain, and should be avoided by those sensitive to gluten. Its primary use has traditionally been as a breakfast cereal, as in oatmeal, or porridge, and more recently granola. Oats are a soft grain; when rolled and flattened, they cook fairly easily. The nutritional level of the oats is much less affected by this process than is the case with other types of grain refinement. The harder whole oats take longer to cook and are richer in flavor and chewier than rolled or “steelcut” oats.

Oats have a great many uses. They have been commonly fed to cattle. Oatmeal is one of the healthier breakfast cereals; its high amount of complex carbohydrate provides sustained energy. Rolled oats can also be toasted to make a fairly healthy granola. This cereal is often sweetened with honey, maple syrup, brown sugar, or malt syrup and may have raisins, seeds, or nuts added to it. It is a nourishing snack but definitely still a sweet treat and not a staple food. Oat flour can be used to make breads, oatmeal cookies, or biscuits. Oat bran is a good substitute for wheat bran, especially in those sensitive to wheat, and some preliminary research suggests that oat bran used regularly may help lower cholesterol levels. Recent cardiovascular research supports the use of oats and oat bran for heart health. In some ways, oats as an unrefined food are the most accepted whole grain in our American society. Oatmeal is the most available whole grain in restaurants across the United States.

Oats are about 10–15 percent protein and provide a source of fiber and a mixture of B vitamins. They have a modest level of folic acid, niacin, pyridoxine, and pantothenic acid, as well as decent amounts of iron, magnesium, zinc, potassium, manganese, calcium, and copper. Fortified oat cereals have a higher vitamin A content than natural oats. However, they usually also contain more sodium, as do most processed foods.

Quinoa is another new grain on the American scene that, like amaranth, is native to Central America. It can be cooked in a main or side dish, or in soups and puddings, or used as a flour in baking. Rinse quinoa thoroughly before cooking since it has a saponin (soaplike) coating. Quinoa is a quick-cooking (20 minutes) whole grain and is high in protein, iron, and calcium, with a mix of the B vitamins and other minerals. It is still fairly expensive, and is available mainly in health food stores.

Rice is the second most highly consumed grain in the world; more than 200 million tons are produced each year. Rice is a staple food throughout much of Asia; in China, the same word, “fan,” is used for rice and for food. In the United States, rice use has increased greatly in the last quarter century with the greater acceptance of the Oriental philosophies. Macrobiotic diets and many natural food diets use whole, or “brown,” rice and its products as a main part of the diet. Also, the concerns over wheat allergy and sensitivity have brought forth many new rice-based products as substitutes.

The primary place of origin of rice is Southeast Asia, where an average of more than 200 pounds per person a year are eaten. India, China, Japan, and Vietnam are some of the major rice-consuming countries. Warmer climates with abundant water are ideal for rice growth. Larger crops are now being cultivated in California and the southern United States.

A number of varieties of rice are commonly available. Sweet rice is more glutenous or gelatinous than other varieties and is used mostly for desserts such as rice pudding. Long-and short-grain brown rice are also commonly available, with many varieties providing different flavors. Besides just being boiled to be eaten with vegetables, tofu, fish, and so on, rice can be popped and used as a breakfast cereal; cream of rice, another breakfast cereal, is made from ground rice. Rice cakes are becoming very popular and can be found in most stores. They are a low-calorie, low-sodium, low-cholesterol, high-fiber snack and may be eaten plain, with butter, or with nut butters. Rice flour can be used in breads, cookies, and often in baked goods, and more of these products are available now for people who are moving away from wheat. Several recent rice products that are very good include mochi, a hard cake made from sweet rice that can be baked into crunchy and tasty rice balls; rice-based ice creams (Rice Dream) and crackers; and Amazake, a rich and sweet rice drink or nectar. Amazake is a tasty and nourishing milk substitute for diet-restricted people. The almond variety is very tasty and high in calcium as well. Children may love all these products.

However, especially in the Asian countries, most rice is refined, or polished. Although removing just the outer bran layers would still leave most of the nutrients, further milling takes place. The rice is bleached, cleaned, pearled (polished with talc), then often oiled and coated. This may make the rice more pleasing, even somewhat more digestible, but it unfortunately removes a great deal of the nutrients. The oils are lost, the protein decreases, and most (80 percent) of the thiamine (B1) is removed, as well as other B vitamins, for example, 50 percent of the pyridoxine, B6, and riboflavin, B2, and two-thirds of the niacin, B3, and some of the minerals. Polished or refined rice is easier for most people to digest owing to the increased starch level and loss of the outer hulls. Refined rice flour is also more stable because, as with wheat, the oils that can rancidify are lost. But what is the point if we lose the overall nutrition? People on a high polished-rice diet got into a great deal of trouble with a disease called beri-beri until it was learned that it came from a thiamine deficiency from eating refined rice. In China, the white rice was considered a more prestigous food than the whole, “dirty” rice that the peasants commonly ate.

Rice is not as high in protein as wheat and some other grains, about 10 percent, but the protein is very good quality and easily usable. Brown rice is better in thiamine, biotin, niacin, pyridoxine, and pantothenic and folic acids than it is in riboflavin and vitamin B12. It has no vitamins A or C, but some vitamin E. Rice, if grown in selenium-rich soil, is very rich in selenium, a scarce but important trace mineral. Magnesium, manganese, potassium, zinc, and iron are all found in good amounts. Sodium is low, but phosphorus, copper, and calcium are all available. White rice, even when enriched, is lower in all of these minerals, yet, whole grain rice is one our more broad-based, nutrient-rich foods.

Wild rice is a special and more expensive type of rice (it is actually not rice, but a different grain plant). It has twice as much protein as regular rice, and more niacin, riboflavin, iron, and phosphorus than brown rice, though less of many other nutrients.

Rye grows best in a cold climate and is much used in Russia, Scandinavia, and northern Europe. Rye is more resistant than wheat and will sustain itself in mountainous northern climates and sandy plains. Rye is often mixed with wheat to make what is called “rye” bread. Pure rye bread (not readily available) is a very nourishing black bread with a rich flavor. Light ryes are usually made with a refined rye flour. Dark rye breads are often made of wheat flour with some rye and dyes to darken the flour. Rye is also used to make whiskey but is not very often used as an animal feed. The rye stalks are very strong and are occasionally used in basket weaving.

Rye is also a gluten grain, though it is lower in gluten than wheat. It is nearly 20 percent protein and a good fiber food, with a mixture of the B vitamins. Iron, magnesium, and potassium are found in the greatest levels, though phosphorus, calcium, and copper are also present.

The most important and oldest of the cereal grains, wheat feeds more people in the world than any other food and is now cultivated worldwide, with the exceptions of the colder climates and tropical areas. The Soviet Union, the United States, and China are the top three wheat-producing nations. Production has more than doubled in the twentieth century, and close to two billion people use wheat regularly in their diets. There are two basic varieties of wheat—”hard,” or durum, wheat, and soft wheat. Hard wheat tends to have a little more protein and is often used to make macaroni and pasta. It also can be ground into flour to make bread, though the soft wheat is more commonly used for bread making. Wheat is the ideal grain for bread, not only because of its starch content but also because of its gluten protein. Gluten gives wheat its tenacious elasticity so characteristic of good dough, and it is primarily the gluten that responds and expands with yeast treatment. Refined soft wheat flour is used by most people to make pastries, cookies, and cakes, though whole wheat flour can be used as well. When buying flours, get them fresh and store them in the freezer or fridge if possible to prevent oxidation and rancidity, or infestation with bugs.

The nutrient content of wheat may vary somewhat depending on the soil availability. The protein content may also vary between 10–20 percent of the wheat kernel. Wheat protein is of good quality and easily usable, but it does not contain high or equal amounts of all the essential amino acids. It is low in lysine and isoleucine. Gluten, the main wheat protein, can be concentrated by slowly running water over the flour dough to dissolve the starch. This leaves a gelatinous protein, which is the basis of a meatlike substitute, used in Oriental cooking, called seitan.

Wheat is also fairly high in the B vitamins except B12. Vitamins C and A are not available, though vitamin E is present in whole wheat. Potassium, magnesium, iron, zinc, and phosphorus are all present in high amounts in whole wheat. Selenium is also very rich. Calcium and copper are found in wheat, but it contains very little sodium and no manganese.

Bulgur wheat is a special preparation of the wheat grain that is commonly used in the Middle Eastern countries, though its use has spread throughout the world, especially to Europe and the United States. The wheat kernels are washed, scrubbed, cracked, and then dried. These smaller grains can then be cooked or even just soaked in water, where they swell in size. This grain is most commonly used in a salad called tabouli or tabuleh.

Another variety of cracked wheat, smaller than the bulgur, is called couscous. It is also used commonly in the Middle Eastern diet—mutton and couscous is the traditional faire in those countries. Couscous is also very good with lentils or chickpeas, and this versatile grain can be used in a main dish, as a salad, or even in desserts. It is easily prepared by pouring boiling water over this soft grain or by light cooking.

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Written by Elson M. Haas MD

Explore Wellness in 2021