What is a pseudograin?
First, let’s identify what classifies a plant as a grain: a grain is a member of the grass family, which produces a dry, edible fruit, commonly called a kernel, grain or berry. Pseudograins, or pseudocereals, are non-grasses that are used in the same manner as grains. Amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat are all considered pseudo grains.
Whole grains are, arguably, the basis of a healthy diet. Both groups provide us with carbohydrates and can also serve as a source of vitamins and minerals! While pseudograins have been popping up in grocery stores all across the country these last few years, some of us still may not grasp the unique properties of each - so let’s take a look!
Amaranth is the shared name for 60 different classes of amaranthus. Several of these species are weeds, but amaranth is still cherished as cereals, leafy vegetables and even as ornamental plants! Amaranth was the staple crop of the Aztecs and has been grown for about 6,000 to 8,000 years. What makes amaranth stand out from other grains and pseudo grains is its ability to remain crunchy and “pop” between your teeth as it is chewed. Despite their tiny stature, amaranth kernels contain higher amounts of many micronutrients (calcium, phosphorus, iron, folic acid and vitamin C) than most other grains and pseudograins. Multiple studies conducted by the USDA, University of Guelph and other researchers have even suggested thatamaranth is rich in phytosterols that could help with lowering cholesterol and in turn reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease!
Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) is a sanctified staple of the ancient Incan empire. It has been touted as the “powerhouse” of grains due to its high protein, potassium, folic acid and vitamin E content! Quinoa also has a higher fat content (1g fat/ 63 calories) compared to cereal grasses, making it a great source for heart healthy fats. The combination of bean and corn flavors in quinoa makes it a great base ingredient for salads, stews and pilafs. Since the best flavor of this crop is obtained when grown above 12,500 feet, most of the quinoa consumed in the U.S. is imported from South America. Recent research has suggested that there is a long list of anti-inflammatory phytonutrientspresent in this pseudograin (inflammatory illnesses include diabetes, CVD and obesity).
Buckwheat is a crop that has fed humankind since 8th millennium BC. Despite its name suggesting that it is related to wheat (which is a cereal grain), it is a broadleaf (not a grass) crop that belongs to the same family as rhubarb and sorrel. Buckwheat seeds are usually triangular with dark hulls on the inside. Like the other two pseudograins, buckwheat has also been associated with cardio-protective and anti-inflammatory properties due to its rich flavonoid content and fiber content (~4.5g/155 calories)! Buckwheat is a versatile ingredient that can be used to make anything from pancakes to soba noodles.
Need more reasons to add pseudograins to the pantry?
Gluten, which is a major protein in many grains, is the key component that provides elasticity in dough. Pseudograins serve as nutrient dense alternatives for people on a strict gluten-free diet. According to the National Center for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), 1 in every 133 (~1% of the population) Americans hasceliac disease (an autoimmune illness that damages the small intestine and interferes with nutrient absorption). A 100% gluten-free diet is the only existing treatment for this disease! A completely gluten-free diet calls for the elimination of some common grains: wheat, rye, barley and sometimes oats (due to cross-contamination with gluten during processing).
Although there are gluten-free grains that are not pseudograins, such as rice and corn, they also have a higher glycemic index (they cause blood sugar levels to shoot up quickly) compared to amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat.
Overall, the nutrient scales seem to be tipped slightly toward pseudograins compared to cereal grains mainly do to their higher nutrient density (more nutrients per gram). So, on the next trip to the farmer’s market or grocery store, don’t hesitate to add some nutrient-packed crunch to your kitchen!
Red Rabbit Education Intern
NYU MS Nutrition and Dietetics Candidate