All About Grains – Part 3 – Gluten-Free Grains

There’s a good chance that you know someone on a gluten-free diet; you may even be on one yourself.  Some people are forced to avoid gluten because of celiac disease, an autoimmune disease affecting about .7% of Americans that can cause severe reactions in the small intestine.[1] Others are gluten intolerant and avoid it because it causes bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, rashes, low-energy, or lethargy.

Whether you have a problem with gluten or not, there is much to be gained by incorporating gluten-free grains into your diet. It’s ok to love wheat, but varying the foods you consume is beneficial and will help ensure that you receive better nutrition. Because some foods contain nutrients that others don’t have, eating many different kinds of food allows you to get a better balance of proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals. Remember, variety is the spice of life.

In case you missed it, this is the third part of our article on grains. If you haven’t read the others yet, check them out: part1, part2. One final note, nearly all of the grains listed below are sold whole—most are simply not worth the trouble to refine. So all you’ll need to do make sure you buy ‘whole corn’ and ‘brown rice’. Enjoy.

Gluten-Free Grains:

Amaranth – The first of our pseudo-cereals. Amaranth ‘grains’ are technically seeds; however, we refer to them as grains because we tend to eat them in a similar way.  The Aztecs first grew amaranth; it was a staple of their diet and was also used as part of their religious ceremonies. The Aztecs would sculpt gods out of amaranth and honey before breaking them apart and eating them. To Spanish conquistadors, this resembled a pagan communion service. This, coupled with the desire to conquer the Aztecs, lead Cortez to outlaw amaranth—under penalty of death![2]

Thankfully, such decrees are a thing of the past and amaranth is experiencing a resurgence. Nutritionally, amaranth has good protein content. It contains a large amount of lysine, which is deficient or missing in our major grains. It also contains a remarkable amount of iron and is the only ‘grain’ that contains vitamin C.[3]

Harvesting amaranth is simple; you simply dry the flower and shake the seeds out. There is no husk or casing to worry about. In South America, amaranth is often sold popped like popcorn. It is also becoming an ever more common additive in cereals, crackers, granola bars, and breads. Amaranth flour can also be used to make porridge. You should be able to find it in your local health food store.

Buckwheat – Have you ever heard of rhubarb? It’s a plant with a long deep-red stalk topped with a big green leaf. The stalk (called a petiole) kind of looks like red celery. It tastes bitter so people usually add sugar and make pies or jams from it. Well, buckwheat—our second pseudo-cereal—is actually related to rhubarb and is not a kind of wheat at all.

Buckwheat seems to have gotten its name from its use (and possibly taste), which is similar to wheat. It is generally ground into flour and used to make a variety of things. Buckwheat has a strong, somewhat nutty flavor that many people enjoy across the world. You may be familiar with buckwheat pancakes, soba noodles, or kasha. You can also use it to make a great buckwheat pilaf.

Buckwheat is very nutritious. It contains a high amount of soluble fiber and contains high levels of zinc, copper, manganese, potassium and calcium. It also has a high protein content, second only to oats, and is a good source of lysine. If you’ve never had it before, give it a try. You may find it’s your new favorite food.

Corn – See “Maize”. The word ‘corn’ is ambiguous and really means ‘grain’ or ‘cereal’. Because of this, ‘corn’ has a different meaning depending on the country you are in. In North America, it refers to maize or ‘Indian corn’. In England, it refers to wheat. In Scotland, corn is another name for oats.

Fonio – This is the grain you are least likely to have heard of, even though it is grown in much larger quantities than quinoa.[4] Fonio (a grain in the same family as millet) is a staple food in many West African communities. Each year, it supplies food to 3-4 million people.[5]

The importance of Fonio has often been misunderstood. Visiting Europeans thought it was too small to be worth harvesting and branded it ‘hungry rice’. Because of this, fonio is often viewed as a poor man’s food.[6] However, amongst the communities who grow it, fonio is prized in for its taste. In fact, there is a proverb that states, “Fonio never embarrasses the cook”.[7]

Nutritionally, fonio contains methionine and cysteine, two amino acids that are often deficient in today’s major cereals. For this reason, fonio is a good complement to other grains and worthwhile to add to your diet. It is also known to be very easy to digest, so it is often recommended for children or people who are sick.[8]

With all this said, you probably won’t have much luck finding fonio. Perhaps you could find some at an African market. Other than that, you might need to book a plane ticket to find some.

Maize – Commonly referred to as ‘corn’ in North America. Maize is the only grain native to the Americas, where indigenous peoples first domesticated it. In fact, “Some consider maize a human invention because it can not reproduce without the aid of humans,” i.e. humans must remove the husk (tough leaves) that surround the corn in order for the grains to be dispersed.[9]

Despite its interesting manner of reproduction, maize was quickly spread around the world by European explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries. Today, maize is the most widely used grain in the world. People value it for it’s high food energy and for its adaptability to many different climates. Maize plants have large leaves that enable them to make better use of sunlight; for this reason, they grow more rapidly than other grains.

Most maize is actually grown to feed animals and people consider it somewhat of a poor grain (nutritionally). However, maize is actually quite nutritious. Corn provides more food energy than any other grain. It is very high in vitamin A and has a high level of antioxidants and carotenoids (which benefit eye health).[10] Enjoy fresh corn tortillas with some rice and beans. In the summer, get some hot, fresh corn on the cob. And ask yourself, what would chili be without a side of corn bread?

Part of maize’s image problem comes from its use in a slew of processed foods and sweeteners. Such products are unhealthy and should be avoided. Another big issue facing corn is genetic modification. In the United States, the vast majority of the corn grown is genetically modified (GMO). Experts are still disputing the safety of genetically modified foods, but there is significant evidence to recommend avoiding them. In the case of corn, if it’s not organic, it is probably GMO.

Oh, one last thing to watch for when you buy corn products, make sure you are buying ‘whole corn’ and not ‘degerminated corn’.

Millet – Is the name for a group of grasses grown for their small seeds. Although it is rarely grown in the United States (except for use as birdseed), millet is an important staple in many parts of the world. In fact, millet is the most common grain in India and many parts of Africa. It’s importance in Africa is due to its tendency to grow well in dry climates. Pearl millet is the most commonly grown species and makes up about half of the yearly millet production.[11]

Millet is an amazing little grain. Besides being easy to digest, it is a great source of protein and contains a high amount of iron. It is also very high in B vitamins, calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, and zinc. Furthermore, studies demonstrate that millet is a great source of antioxidants.[12]

Millet has a delicate flavor and is often toasted before cooking. Millet can be used in much the same way as rice. Its flour can also be used to make bread. Mixing millet with other grains enhances their flavor. In Europe, it’s traditional to make a sweet porridge from millet. You could also pop millet and eat it as a snack.

Teff – A tiny type of millet that is particularly rich in iron and has an interesting story. Although it makes up only 1% of the worldwide millet production, teff accounts for 86% of millets grown in Ethiopia.[13] Most teff is used to make ingera, Ethiopia and Eritrea’s traditional, spongy, sourdough bread. If you’ve never tried it, you owe yourself a trip to a nearby Ethiopian restaurant. Otherwise, you can buy some teff at your local health food store and use it in whatever you want—some report that it makes for a delicious and nutritious hot cereal.


Oats – Many people consider oats to be gluten-free. See the information provided in All About Grains – Part 2.


Quinoa (keen-wah) – The grain with the most obscure pronunciation. Quinoa, our third pseudo-cereal, is native to Peru and was sacred to the Incas. Until ten years ago, quinoa was basically unknown in the U.S. However, it has rapidly grown in popularity due to its reputation as a health food. It can be bought in different colors such as white, red, or black. The darker colored quinoa has an earthier, nuttier flavor than the lighter colors.

Quinoa is amazingly productive plant; a half-pound of seed is enough to plant a whole acre. Each year, an acre will yield 1200-2000 pounds of seed.[14] Even with this high yield, South American farmers are struggling to keep up with the growing demand for quinoa.

Nutritionally, quinoa is a complete protein, which makes it attractive to vegetarians or vegans. It also has a very high level of potassium, which is known to help control blood pressure. If you’re looking to add quinoa to your diet, be sure to rinse it first—this will remove a bitter tasting coating. Quinoa cooks quickly, so it’s a great dinner choice if you’re in a hurry.

The most popular way to serve quinoa (in the U.S. anyway) is in salads. Try using it to replace bulgur wheat in a traditional tabbouleh salad. Otherwise, you can use it as you would use rice, or it could be added to soups, stews, breads, or other baked goods.

Note: One final thing to say about quinoa. The rapidly increasing demand for quinoa by Westerners is harming the people who have relied on it for centuries. Poorer people in Peru and Bolivia can no longer afford to buy it. There is also pressure to stop growing other crops and grow only quinoa, destroying the local agricultural diversity.[15] Although it is a healthy, versatile grain, we recommend using moderation when adding quinoa to your diets. Let’s focus on eating grains that have a positive impact on the people growing them.

Kañiwa (ka-nyee-wah) – A relative to quinoa and an even more recent newcomer to America. Kañiwa is even smaller than quinoa—about half the size! Like quinoa, it has a high protein content along with high levels of dietary fiber, iron, calcium, and zinc. One benefit of Kañiwa is that (unlike quinoa) you don’t need to rinse it before cooking—due to its tiny size that is a good thing! If your local health food store doesn’t have any, check online. There are several retailers who have started selling it.

Rice – Far from the stereotypical ‘Asian’ food, rice is actually a staple worldwide. Half of the world depends on it for sustenance and one billion people are actively involved in growing it. One thing that sets rice aside from other grains is its ability to grow for long periods of time in standing water. In fact, growing rice in water is the most common method. In organic farming, the water is also used to choke out weeds and deter pests. Rice makes a very efficient use of planting space. Per acre, rice produces more food than any other type of grain.

Rice is gentle on the stomach and is known for being one of the easiest grains to digest. Brown rice has a very low glycemic-index. It is high in nutrients such as manganese, selenium, and magnesium. Rice contains a good amount of fiber as well as a good amino acid profile—although it is deficient in lysine. However, mixing rice with legumes (lentils, peas, beans—all of which contain lysine) is one of the best sources for protein worldwide.

Whole grain rice is called brown rice. White rice has had the bran polished off and is no longer a whole grain. Red, purple, and black varieties of rice also exist; like brown rice, they are whole grains. Rice can be used in a wide variety of recipes and foods. Try it in stir-frys, sushi, soups, salads, puddings, or porridges. It can also be processed into cereals, noodles, rice cakes, and spring roll wraps.

Sorghum – globally, sorghum is 5th in terms of cereal production. Despite this fact, sorghum—like millet—has yet to reach its full potential in North America. In the U.S. most sorghum is used as animal feed or in copious other products such as packing materials or brooms.

Maize and sorghum are comparable products in regards to production and nutrition. However, maize has a higher yield. Sorghum tends to be chosen in dry, hot growing environments. Sorghum is one stout plant. It needs less water than maize and it thrives in areas most other grains dry up. This has led to its popularity (especially in poor communities) in large parts of Africa, Central America, and South Asia.[16]

Sorghum is unique in that it does not have an inedible hull. For this reason, it is usually eaten whole and retains the majority of its nutrients. Nowadays, sorghum is becoming popular as a health food—especially with people on restricted diets. Sorghum flour is often substituted for wheat in baked goods and many other recipes. Traditionally, Africans ground sorghum into flour, but they also used it in soups, porridges, and side dishes. In many parts of Africa sorghum is popped and sold as street food.

Wild Rice – like buckwheat, wild rice is not botanically related to its namesake. Wild rice was simply named ‘rice’ because that’s what it looks like. Wild rice grows in shallow lakes, rivers and streams around the Great Lakes. It was a staple grain to Native Americans in those regions. In today’s world, a large portion of the worldwide wild rice crop is still harvested by Native Americans in my home state—Minnesota.[17]

Wild rice is also Minnesota’s state grain and Minnesotans seem to enjoy experimenting with it in a wide variety of foods. It has a strong flavor and thus is usually mixed with regular rice. It adds an excellent color and flavor to rice pilaf. Besides this, wild rice is often used to spice up breads, patties, soups, stews, and casseroles. It takes quite a bit longer to cook then regular rice, so make sure you plan your meal accordingly.

Nutritionally, wild rice is high in protein, and contains a good amount of lysine, which is often lacking in other grains. It also has a very low glycemic-load. It is also high in fiber, folic acid, manganese, iron, and copper. Even if you don’t live in an area where wild rice is traditional, you should be able to find it in many supermarkets or at your health food store.

So there you have it. A rundown of the grains you are likely to find… just about anywhere. We hope you have learned something and feel inspired to try something new in the kitchen. These days, recipes and creativity abound so give it your best shot. Who knows, you may find your new favorite food!

If you missed part 1 or part 2, be sure to check them out as well. Enjoy!

[1] Campaign, The National Institutes of Health Celiac Disease Awareness. “Welcome to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Celiac Disease Awareness Campaign”.

[2] “Rediscovering Amaranth, The Aztec Superfood – Forbes.” Forbes.

[3] “Rediscovering Amaranth, The Aztec Superfood – Forbes.” Forbes.

[4] Food and Africulture Organization of the United Nations, August 7, 2012.

[5] “Lost Crops of Africa: Volume I: Grains.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cruz, Jean-Francois. “Fonio: a Small Grain with Potential.” LEISA Magazine.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Zea Introduction.” Gramene.

[10] “Whole Grains A to Z.” Whole Grains Council.

[11] “Annex II: Realative Importance of Millet Species, 1992-94.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

[12] Chandrasekara, Anoma, and Fereidoon Shahidi. “Content of Insoluble Bound Phenolics in Millets and Their Contribution to Antioxidant Capacity.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 58, no. 11 (June 9, 2010): 6706–6714. doi:10.1021/jf100868b.

[13] “Annex II: Realative Importance of Millet Species, 1992-94.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

[14] “Quinoa – March Grain of the Month.” Whole Grains Council.

[15] “Westerners Devour Quinoa, While Poor Bolivians Can No Longer Afford Their Staple Grain.” Business Insider.

[16] “Sorghum Introduction.” Gramene.

[17] “Whole Grains A to Z.” Whole Grains Council.

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Jon Ewald, MD

Jon Ewald grew up in Minnesota and has a love for the outdoors. He obtained his medical degree at Loma Linda University, graduating in 2020. He is currently completing his residency in Radiology at University of Pittsburgh.

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