Cereal grains, including wild rice (Zizania), wheat (Triticum), rice (Oryza), corn (Zea), oats (Avena), barley (Hordeum), millet (Echinochloa) and rye (Secale), are grasses cultivated for their edible seeds. They belong to the Poaceae family, along with bamboo. The first cereal grains, including wheat and barley, were domesticated about 12,000 years ago by farming communities in the fertile crescent region of southwest Asia.
Whole (unrefined) grains are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fiber, essential fats, and protein, especially if they are soaked and cooked, sprouted, or fermented. Seeds are how most plants reproduce. Some seeds are contained inside fleshy fruits that are eaten by animals. The flesh of the fruit is digested by the animal, while the seed passes through the digestive system intact to be deposited, encased in fertilizer, elsewhere. In order for the plant to reproduce, it’s necessary that the seed pass through the digestive tract whole (undigested). Many plant seeds have developed defense mechanisms to make them more difficult to digest, including enzyme inhibitors that can interfere with digestion and other natural substances that block nutrient absorption. For example, phosphorus in the bran of whole grains is bound to a substance called phytic acid. Phytic acid prevents premature germination and stores nutrients for plant growth. Unfortunately, it also reduces the absorption of the important minerals calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, and reduces the digestibility of protein. This applies not only to the minerals and protein in the food containing the phytic acid, but also the food that you eat with it. Over time, these phytates can lead to mineral deficiencies, allergies, and irritation of the intestinal tract. Cereal grains also contain protease inhibitors, which block enzyme function and protect seeds from being eaten. These inhibitors can also prevent protease enzymes from digesting protein in the human digestive tract.
Traditionally, humans soaked or fermented grains before eating them, processes that neutralize phytates and enzyme inhibitors so that all the nutrients are more available. Later, humans learned how to “refine” grains by removing the most nutritious parts: the bran and the germ. The remaining endosperm is mostly carbohydrate and lacks the majority of the other nutrients. That’s one reason refined grains keep longer: other animals that we call “pests” don’t find them as attractive. Relying on refined grains also meant that humans lost the traditional preparation methods of sprouting, soaking, and fermenting grains (except in the production of beer).
When a plant seed undergoes germination, changes occur that provide the growing plant with needed nutrients. These changes include the breakdown of phytic acid and complex carbohydrates, the inactivation of protease inhibitors, and the increased availability of vitamins and minerals, all of which increase the nutritional value of the seed and improve its digestibility. In nature, germination typically occurs when a plant seed encounters conditions that are favorable for growth, and that typically involves water. We can easily initiate the germination of grains, beans, or other seeds by soaking them in water. Soaking reduces phytic acid in about 12 hours, although it can take 36 hours to reduce protease inhibitors, but if the grain is cooked after 12 hours of soaking, the protease inhibitors are greatly reduced. Soaking can also increase the content of some vitamins and help break down complex carbohydrates and improve their digestibility, reducing intestinal gas. Cooking also deactivates natural plant toxins that may still exist after soaking.
To prevent grains from absorbing chemicals from the water or container that they’re soaking in, consider using a glass container and filtered water. It may also be beneficial to use lukewarm water and increase its acidity with a tablespoon or two of lemon juice or vinegar.
Beta-carotene can improve the availability of two minerals—iron and zinc—from grains. Eating one medium-sized carrot (about 50 grams) along with each cup of cooked rice results in a 50% increase in the availability of iron and increases the availability of zinc by about 35-40%. Beta-carotene may form a complex with the minerals to help maintain their solubility, and it also may help prevent their getting bound together with phytates in the rice that would otherwise be able to lower their absorption.
Oats did not become an important food crop as early as wheat or barley. Modern oats probably originated from the Asian wild red oat. Because Asia Minor currently has the most variety of wild oats, it’s likely that’s where oats originated. Oat grains found in Egypt from about 2,000 B.C., probably were weeds. The oldest known cultivated oats were found in caves in Switzerland and are believed to date to before 450 BC. Oats became a staple in Germany, Ireland, Scotland, and Scandivia. They were first brought to North America with other grains in 1602. As early as 1786, George Washington sowed 580 acres in oats. By the 1860s and 1870s, oats were being grown in the middle and upper Mississippi Valley, which the major growing area today. With the advance of knowledge about nutrition, oats were recognized for their health benefits in the mid 1980s.
Oats are a significant source fiber, which is about half soluble and half insoluble. One component of the soluble fiber is beta-glucans, which has proven effective in lowering blood cholesterol. Soluble fiber breaks down as it passes through the digestive tract, forming a gel that traps some substances, such as cholesterol-rich bile acids, reducing the absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream. The bad cholesterol (LDL) is trapped, without lowering good cholesterol (HDL). The beta-glucan gel also increases the viscosity of the contents of the digestive tract, slowing down digestion, prolonging the absorption of carbohydrates into the bloodstream, slowing the rise in blood glucose levels following a meal, delaying its decline to pre-meal levels, and avoiding dramatic changes in blood sugar levels. The gel delays stomach emptying, making you feel full longer, which helps with weight loss. Oat beta-glucan can enhance the ability of certain human immune cells to navigate to the site of a bacterial infection, resulting in faster healing. The insoluble fibers in oats may also reduce carcinogens in the gastrointestinal tract, reduce high blood pressure, and keep bowel movements regular. Rather than dissolving in water, insoluble fiber absorbs many times its own weight of liquid. It makes stools heavier and speeds their passage through the intestines, relieving constipation. Oats contain hundreds of phytochemicals. Oats are one of the best sources of tocotrienols, antioxidants that together with tocopherols form vitamin E. The tocotrienols inhibit cholesterol synthesis and lower blood cholesterol. The antioxidants in oats reduce cholesterol by reducing the ability of blood cells to stick to the inside of artery walls. Phytoestrogen compounds in oats, called lignans, may decrease the risk of hormone-related diseases such as breast cancer. Fiber also decreases circulating estrogen levels, which may lower the risk of breast cancer. Eating oats 45 minutes to one hour before exercise of moderate intensity can favorably alter metabolism and enhance performance. Oats have a higher concentration of protein than other cereals, with a good balance of essential fatty acids. They’re a good source of essential vitamins such as thiamine, folate, biotin, pantothenic acid, and vitamin E. They also contain zinc, selenium, copper, iron, manganese, and magnesium.
Old-fashioned or rolled oats are less processed than quick oats; therefore, they have more nutrients. They are pre-steamed to make for faster cooking, but a bit thicker and larger flakes (and thus take a little longer than quick oats), but they are heartier and more flavorful. Steel-cut oats or Irish oats are oat groats (whole oats) that have been chopped into pieces, but not cooked or rolled. They are the most nutritious, as well as the most flavorful and the heartiest, with a chewy texture. They take the longest to cook.
Soaking is an important step for oats, as they contain more phytates than almost any other grain. Soak 1 cup of oats for 12–24 hours in 1–1.5 cups of water for rolled oats or 2–3 cups of water for steel-cut oats. To this add one tablespoon of lemon juice and one tablespoon of whole wheat flour, which is higher in phytase, the enzyme that helps to reduce the phytates. You do not need to drain before cooking. Bring the soaked oats to a boil on medium-high heat, then turn the heat lower to simmer with the lid on for about 5 minutes for rolled oats and 10 minutes or more for steel-cut oats. Enjoy your oatmeal with a little soy or nut milk, a drizzle of maple syrup, fruit, nuts, flax seeds, and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Barley was one of the first domesticated grains in the Fertile Crescent in Western Asia and near the Nile river of northeast Africa. The earliest domesticated barley was found in Syria. Barley beer was probably the first drink developed by humans, before 4500 BC. Barley has also been grown on the Korean Peninsula since at least 850 BC. Barley was used as currency, and it was a staple cereal of ancient Egypt, where it was used to make bread and beer. In ancient Greece, the practice was to dry the barley groats and roast them before preparing porridge, according to Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Roasting produces malt that soon ferments and becomes slightly alcoholic. Pliny also noted barley was a special food of gladiators known as hordearii, or “barley-eaters.” By Roman times, wheat had replaced barley as a staple. According to Deuteronomy 8:8, barley is one of the “Seven Species”of crops that characterize the fertility of the Promised Land of Canaan, and it has a prominent role in the Israelite sacrifices described in the Pentateuch. The “adultery test” prescribed in Numbers 5:11-31 is similar to alphitomancy in the Greek and Roman world and the corsned in Anglo-Saxon England: all are forms of divination or trial by ordeal involving barley. Barley has been a staple food in Tibet since the fifth century AD, where it is still made into a staple flour product called tsampa. In medieval Europe, bread made from barley and rye was considered peasant food, while wheat products were reserved for the upper classes. Potatoes replaced barley in Eastern Europe in the 19th century.
Barley is a great source of fiber, both soluble and insoluble. Like all plant foods, barley is naturally cholesterol-free and low in fat. A 1/2-cup serving of cooked barley contains less than 1/2 gram of fat and only 100 calories. Barley contains several vitamins and minerals including niacin (vitamin B3), thiamine (vitamin B1), selenium, iron, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and copper. Barley contains antioxidants and other phytochemicals that may decrease the risk for certain diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Cooked barley has a chewy consistency and a nutty taste. Barley can be served as a side dish, cooked in other dishes, or made into a breakfast cereal. Pearled barley takes less time to cook; however, because the bran layer is removed, it is a refined grain, and you lose 11 points on the ANDI score. The bran layer is what gives the barley its fiber and many other nutrients; however, whole grain barley requires a longer cooking time in order to become tender. Soak barley in water for quicker cooking; more tender results; to break down complex sugars, tannins, gluten, and phytic acid; to make the grains easier to digest; and to allow the minerals contained in the grain to be more easily absorbed. Place the barley in a container and cover with double the amount of fresh water. Let it soak on your counter top for 8–24 hours. Drain and rinse. Cover with triple the amount of fresh water as the original amount of barley. Over high heat, bring the barley and water, uncovered, to a boil. Cover, and reduce the heat to low. Allow the grain to simmer for 45 minutes. Once cooked, it will always retain some chewiness. Boiled barley is done when 20 percent of the grains have burst open. Do not add salt until after the barley is cooked, as salt can block absorption of water.
Here are the ANDI scores of cereal grains:
- Black Rice, cooked 96
- Bran Flakes Cereal, fortified 67
- Wild Rice, cooked 56
- Corn Flakes Cereal 54
- Corn, yellow 45
- Corn, white 41
- Sprouted Grain Bread 39
- Oats, old-fashioned, cooked 36
- Whole Wheat Flour 31
- Buckwheat Groats, cooked; Whole Wheat Bread 30
- English Muffin, whole wheat 29
- Brown Rice, cooked; Quinoa, cooked 28
- Kamut, cooked 27
- Pita, whole wheat; Bran Flakes Cereal, unfortified, 26
- Pumpernickel Bread; Wheat Berries; Whole Wheat Pasta 25
- Barley, cooked; Corn, whole kernel, canned; Spinach Pasta 24
- Corn, whole kernel, canned, no salt added; Millet, cooked 23
- Corn, canned, cream style; Whole Wheat Tortilla 21
- Rye Bread 20
- Bagel, whole wheat; Quick Oats 19
- Cornmeal; White Bread 17
- Granola; Pita, white; White Pasta 16
- Melba Toast Crackers, Pearled Barley; Pretzels, hard, whole wheat; Raisin Bread 15
- Bagel Chips; Pita Chips; Popcorn, air-popped 14
- Bagel; Corn Tortilla; Couscous; English Muffin; Sandwich Crackers, Peanut Butter Filling; White Flour Tortilla; White Rice 13
- Pretzels, hard; Rice Cakes 12
- Granola Bar; Saltines 11
- Corn Pasta; Rice Milk 10
- Chocolate Chip Granola Bar; Oreos 9
- Fig Bars; Graham Crackers; Popcorn, oil popped, no salt; Toaster Pastry; White Flour 8
- Animal Crackers, Corn Chips; Oatmeal Cookies 7
- Chocolate Chip Cookies; Corn Puffs; Peanut Butter Cookie; Popcorn, oil popped, microwave; Pound Cake 6
- Chocolate Cake 5
- Apple Pie 4
- Corn Oil 3
- Corn Syrup 1
This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this website to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.
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