Gluten Free Grains: The subject of grains, especially with the popularity of the gluten free diet and the paleo diet is a bit controversial. Let's look at what available to you as a person avoiding gluten, then explore the controversy and nutritional implications of choosing to eat grains or not.
You can approach grains one of two ways:
1. Take advantage of the wide variety of tasty, nutritious gluten-free grains available to you.
2. Reduce or eliminate grains from your diet. Just be sure to get the necessary nutrients from other foods
To remember what grains you need to avoid just remember BROW
Barley, Rye, Oats*, Wheat
*Oats are technically gluten free but high risk for cross contamination. See below
Nutrients in Grain and Some Alternatives
If you choose to eat grains, there are lots of gluten free grains to choose from. In fact you may find that eliminating gluten will actually expand your selection rather than limit it. Just try as much as you can to eat whole grains. For example choose brown rice over white, and whole corn over processed corn products.
Most of us are familiar with rice. It's not only the most popular gluten free grain, it's the most widely consumed grain in the world. Rice is a staple in many Asian diets and is also very popular in Europe and North America. There are many varieties. Whole grain brown rice is the best nutritionally as the bran remains. For variety you can include other long grain and short grain varieties in your recipes. Risotto is a favourite of mine. You can also buy rice pasta and rice paper wraps as alternative to the familiar wheat varieties.
Corn, our next gluten free grain, comes second in terms of global production, just ahead of wheat, but most of that goes to animals. or into processed foods. While it's true that corn is at least as over consumed and over processed as wheat don't discount it as a valuable and nutritious addition to your diet. Whole grain corn is with a dab of butter and salt is juicy and tasty. I can barely imagine late summer in Canada without corn on the cob. Corn bread and corn tortillas can replace other breads in your diet. Also, some people who have problems digesting other grains are okay with corn. You may want to try corn pasta or polenta. As always, whole foods are the best. You'll feel better and stay healthier if you try to avoid the processed foods that have all the nutrients stripped from them. But if you're looking for a cheat snack, corn chips like Doritos or Tostitos are gluten free. Add a little salsa and it's really not the worst thing you can have, in moderation of course.
This is a gluten free grain that makes a nice alternative to rice. It can be toasted and boiled and served like you would serve rice. Though it does not contain gluten, some celiacs report that they don’t tolerate millet well. If you choose to try millet you may wish to wait until you have been on your gluten free diet for a while and pay attention for any adverse affects. I like to mix a little millet and rice together to change the texture and flavour profile a bit and up the nutritional value.
Despite the name, this is a gluten free grain and has no relation to wheat. Buckwheat can be toasted and cooked like a cereal, made into noodles (soba), added to salads, ground into flour and added to breads or pancakes. Try this Buckwheat Salad with Beets, Peaches and Feta. I'm sure you'll be hooked.
Quinoa (pronounced keenwa) is a gluten free grain and enjoys the reputation of a superfood. It's recognizable by the little tails that wrap around each grain. Quinoa is high in fibre, protein, iron, magnesium and B vitamins. It's easy to cook and add to salads. I like to add it to rice dishes. Just substitute ¼ to 1/3 of the rice with quinoa and give your dish a huge nutritional boost. Similar to rice, quinoa can be added to vegetable and tomato based dishes to provide some texture and make them more interesting. Check out this gluten free and vegan Quinoa and Butternut Squash Chili.
Sorghum is a gluten free grain that is sometimes eaten as a substitute for rice. Most often we find it in gluten free flour blends as it adds protein and strength to flour blends that would be too weak with just rice flour and starches. I’ve included it in my bread flour blend for this reason.
My first encounter with teff was in cooking school. It was an international foods assignment and one of the groups chose Ethiopia. Teff is a gluten free grain that is used to make injera is a flat bread that is common in Ethiopian cuisine and is becoming common in North America as people switch to gluten free diets. It’s high in calcium, protein and fibre. Teff is very absorbent and high in fibre. I like to add it to bread products along with ground flax or chia to provide some structure so I can cut down on or eliminate gums.
Oats are technically a gluten free grain, yet many celiacs avoid it due to danger of cross contamination. Many farms that grow oats also grow wheat or rotate oat and wheat crops. If you are going to eat oats or oatmeal, ensure that it is certified gluten free. The Bulk Barn carries gluten free oat products. or Bob's Red Mill is another reliable brand. If you have just been diagnosed with celiac disease you may want to wait about 6 months before consuming oats, just to give your gut a chance to heal.
As I peruse the web and various publications I’m drawn to commentary about this new gluten free diet fad and how bad it is for you because of the absence of grains. ‘You’re eliminating an entire food group and risking nutritional deficiencies’ is more or less how the rhetoric goes. I think we've demonstrated here that this is simply not the case. If fact there adding gluten free grains to your diet could actually increase the amount of grain you eat while adding much needed variety.
Let’s examine this controversy from a few angles, and I think when we’re done you’ll agree with me that it it entirely without substance.
It is true that grains are identified as a major food group by both the Canadian and the USDA food guides as well a similar guides around the world, and both recommend a daily minimum number of servings.
Grains are a good source of several nutrients such as B vitamins, as well as iron, magnesium and selenium. Grains are also a good source of vegetarian protein if paired with nuts and seeds or legumes and a good source of dietary fiber.
However, any suggestion that you can't have a complete, balanced diet without grains is simply unfounded. There are actually other,
better sources of all of these nutrients. B vitamins
are abundant in dark meats, organ meats and beans. Magnesium can be obtained from dark leafy
greens, beans and nuts and seeds.
Selenium comes from brazil nuts and dark-fleshed fish.
The USDA says that people who do not eat grains are at risk of heart disease and obesity because grains are an important source of dietary fibre. It’s true that grains are a source of fibre and gluten free grain can fill this role too, but there are many other sources. Beans and legumes are excellent sources of fibre as are most fruits and vegetables, especially if eaten raw and with the skin.
On the down side, grains are often processed into products that are anything but healthy. White bread, processed cold cereals, and the plethora of products on grocery shelves that are a combination of processed grains and sugar like: cookies, cakes, cereal and granola bars, snack foods like corn chips, pretzels. All of these are sold under the guise of “healthy grains” when these contribute to chronic disease like heart disease and cancer. This is where the naysayers of the gluten free diet get their ammunition. It's true that if you simply substitute a gluten containing diet with lots of processed foods and sugar with a gluten free diet with lots of processed foods and sugar, you are not making healthy choices and you may find you gain weight. Gluten free processed foods tend to be higher in calories than their gluteny counterparts because they are denser. This is why I suggest to anyone new to the gluten free diet to avoid going out a purchasing everything they can find with gluten free on the label. While a treat is fine, if you stick mostly with naturally gluten free whole foods you'll feel better and stay healthier.
In conclusion, gluten free grains are abundant and are part of a healthy gluten diet. Yet you can choose to include grains in your diet or not. Just ensure that you are eating a good variety of whole foods so you are getting all of your vitamins and minerals.
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Judith Finlayson, The Compete Gluten-Free Whole Grains Cookbook, Robert Rowe Inc., Canada 2013
William Davis, Wheat Belly, Collins Canada May 2012
Elaine Gottschall, Breaking the Vicious Cycle, Kirkton Pr Ltd; Revised edition (August 1994)