17 Healthy Grains You've Never Heard Of
For many, whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet. Consuming at least three servings of whole grains per day (one serving is one-half cup of cooked grains like oatmeal or rice, or one slice of bread) can reduce the risk of some chronic health conditions like cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, and certain cancers. One study also showed that eating whole grains in place of refined grains can reduce potentially dangerous excess abdominal fat, buildup that can raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and even cause insulin resistance (potentially leading to diabetes).
But what to do when oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, and even quinoa are getting old? Here are 17 grains you’ve probably never heard of that can be great additions to a healthy diet.
Once considered a weed, amaranth is now known for its killer nutritional value. This grain is high in fiber (21 percent of the daily recommended value per cup), and it’s also a great source of the amino acid lysine and nutrients magnesium, calcium, and squalene, a compound that may help prevent cancer.
Plus, it’s a protein powerhouse: In one study, rats that consumed amaranth grew more than those that were fed maize thanks to the grain’s 9 grams of protein per cup.It also may have cholesterol-lowering potential (at least, in hamsters).
Food to try with amaranth: Alegría, a Mexican amaranth candy
Kamut is the brand name—and most commonly used name—for the ancient khorasan strain of wheat. It’s a great source of protein, with 11 grams per cup, as well as nutrients like selenium, zinc, and magnesium. One study even showed that rats that consumed kamut had better responses to oxidative stress than those that had eaten wheat, which basically means kamut is higher in antioxidants than regular wheat.
Dish to try with kamut: Grain and vegetable salad with kamut, quinoa, and soybeans
Formerly used primarily as bird feed, millet is increasing in popularity among humans, whether it’s prepared like rice or made into flour and used in baked goods. It’s a good source of protein (6 grams per cup) and has been shown to help control glucose levels.
Another benefit of keeping glucose levels in check? When blood sugar levels are steady, energy levels are steady.
Dish to try with millet: Millet porridge with raisins
These teeny tiny grains pack a sizable nutritional punch: Teff is surprisingly high in calcium (one cup contains 35 percent of the daily recommended value), vitamin C, and it’s gluten-free.
Teff primarily contains high-resistant starch, which can help prevent colon cancer. Resistant starches aren’t immediately digested when traveling through the small intestine. Instead, they hang out in the large intestine, where bacteria feed on them and create fatty acids that make the environment less welcoming to bacteria that can harm the colon. A study also showed that people who ate muffins high in resistant starch felt fuller than those who ate muffins without.
Teff’s tiny size (about the size of a poppy seed) allows it to cook quickly compared to other grains, ranging from 12 to 20 minutes depending on desired texture.
Dish to try with teff: Injera, an African teff flour flatbread
This grain is freakin’ awesome! (Sorry, we had to.) Basically, freekeh is wheat that’s harvested early (when the leaves are yellow and the seeds are green and soft) and then roasted, giving it a smoky flavor. Freekeh has up to four times as much protein as brown rice, and it’s low on the glycemic index. Plus, it boasts a ton of fiber, which is beneficial to colon health.
Freekeh can be prepared similarly to rice and is popular in pilafs and risottos.
Dish to try with freekah: Haddock with freekeh and yellow squash
This ancient strain of wheat was allegedly rationed to Roman soldiers thousands of years ago. An ounce of farro has more fiber than brown rice or quinoa, and it can be used in similar preparation to those standbys.
Dish to try with farro: Farro and tomato salad
Barley dates back to the Stone Age and can take on many roles. It can be ground into flour or meal for baked goods, added to soups and stews in its pearled form, and (of course) malted to make beer or whiskey. Since it’s high in fiber (almost one quarter of the daily recommended value is in one cup of the pearled stuff), it may help prevent some chronic diseases and lower cholesterol.
Dish to try with barley: Barley with roasted eggplant and pine nuts
Fonio might be a tiny type of millet, but there’s a ton of nutritional value in this grain. It’s rich in amino acids—specifically methionine, which helps the liver process fat, and cystine, which is part of the proteins that make up our hair, nails, and skin, and also helps remove toxins from the liver and brain. Fonio is also one of the grains highest in magnesium, zinc, and manganese.
But there may be some reason to beware: One study has linked fonio and other types of millet to hypothyroidism (when the thyroid doesn’t produce enough of certain hormones) and possible development of autism in children whose mothers ingested too much during pregnancy. But further research on both subjects is needed before conclusions can be drawn.
Dish to try with fonio: Nigerian fonio porridge
Sorghum is a gluten-free grain that can be a great option for those with celiac disease. Plus, it’s super versatile—it can be used as flour in baked goods, cooked into porridge, popped like popcorn, or even used to make beer.
One study found it’s even higher in polyphenol antioxidants than blueberries and pomegranates. And look out in the future: Extract from sorghum bran (the hard, outer layer of the grain, usually removed during processing) may soon become a popular additive to foods to increase antioxidant content in a cost-effective way.
Dish to try with sorghum: Korean sorghum pancakes with red bean paste
Bulgur, another derivative of wheat, is the result of boiling, drying, and cracking wheat kernels. It’s incredibly versatile in dishes and cooks in about the same amount of time as pasta. With 8 grams of fiber per cup, or 33 percent of the daily recommended value, bulgur beats quinoa, oats, millet, buckwheat, and corn in that category.
Dish to try with bulgur: Bulgur salad with vegetables
Spelt is a type of wheat that is higher in protein than other types, and—in flour form—can easily be used as a substitute for wheat flour in recipes. There is some evidence that those with sensitivity to wheat can tolerate spelt, but other research suggests those with gluten intolerance might still want to hold off.
Dish to try with spelt: Spelt fusilli with mushrooms and spinach
When wheat and rye meet and fall in love, they make triticale (say: tri-ti-KAY-lee) a hybrid of the two grains that’s been around since the 1960s. This young’n can help lower cholesterol, and, in one study, was shown to have significant antioxidant contents. Triticale is often eaten in berry form or as oatmeal-like flakes.
Dish to try with triticale: Muesli with triticale and berries
Native to Russia, buckwheat is actually not a type of wheat at all—it’s an herb. More closely related to rhubarb than to wheat (making it gluten-free), its seeds are ground into flour or crushed to make groats, which are cooked like rice. Buckwheat may also help lower cholesterol levels by binding to cholesterol molecules and dragging them out of the body on their way through the digestive system. It can also be helpful in treating diabetes because it naturally contains a compound that lowers blood glucose levels.
Buckwheat is the main ingredient in most soba noodles and these delicious-looking pancakes.
Dish to try with buckwheat: Buckwheat crepe with ratatouille and an egg
14. Red rice
White rice, brown rice, red rice?! A type of yeast growing on rice grains yields this fun colored food—and the health benefits are pretty astounding. Long used for its medicinal properties in Asian countries (back in the 1300s, it was used in China to aid indigestion, blood circulation, and spleen health), red rice extract is gaining popularity in the US for its cholesterol-lowering properties.
Red rice can also refer to a type of rice with a red husk, which is high in fiber, has a nutty taste, and, when mixed with other foods, can turn the dish a festive shade of pink or red.
Dish to try with red rice: Bagoong alamang, a Filipino shrimp paste
15. Rye berries
Everyone knows about rye bread, but the grain can also be eaten in its berry form. Rye berries can be cooked like rice or barley in pilafs or soups, though cooking can take up to an hour. Not a fan of rye bread? Don’t be discouraged—that distinct flavor comes from caraway seeds added to the bread, not the rye itself, so dishes made with rye berries won’t have the same taste.
As for health benefits, it’s hard to beat rye: One study showed that rye contains a peptide called lunasin, which could play a role in cancer prevention. Another showed that rye fiber appears to be more effective than the wheat fiber in improving bowel health.
Dish to try with rye berries: Purple rice and rye berries
16. Wheat berries
We’ve all heard of wheat, but most of the wheat we eat is in baked goods like bread and muffins—not always healthy. Wheat berries, on the other hand, are a way to get wheat in its most natural state—whole kernels with only the hull removed. This means they contain all the grain’s nutrients and minerals. One half-cup serving is a great source of selenium, manganese, phosphorous, magnesium, and lignan, a phytochemical that may help protect against breast cancer.
Once cooked (simmered in boiling water for up to an hour should do it), they are a great addition to soups, stews, and even salads. Since wheat berries are quite literally whole wheat, they may be more filling than a similar amount of food made with wheat flour.
Dish to try with wheat berries: Fruit salad with wheat berries
17. Indian ricegrass
Indian ricegrass, also known by the brand name Montina, is a staple of Native American diets and has gained popularity in the gluten-free community, for obvious reasons. Pure Indian ricegrass flour is super high in protein and fiber, with 17 grams of protein, 24 grams of dietary fiber, and 24 grams of insoluble fiber in just two-thirds of a cup. It can have an intense wheat-like flavor, so it’s best combined with other flours in dark baked goods.
Originally published April 2012. Updated April 2016.