Pseudograins to the Rescue

These tiny grain imposters can add flavor and nutrition to your diet.

Not all grains are created equal—namely some “grains” aren’t grains at all. You may have heard the term “pseudograins,” but what are they, exactly? Whereas most grains are seeds of the Poacea botanical family of grasses—also known as cereals—pseudo (false) grains are the seeds of unrelated plant families. These are the three major pseudograins:

Amaranth. First cultivated in Central America 8,000 years ago, this tall plant with broad leaves and bright flowers was a staple crop of the Aztecs. The tiny golden seeds (about the size of poppy seeds) have a slightly grassy, peppery, nutty flavor and a creamy, comforting texture. Amaranth is an excellent source of iron and magnesium and a good source of calcium and fiber. It’s the only grain known to contain vitamin C.

Buckwheat. This relative of rhubarb and sorrel, which originated in China and Japan, has a mild, earthy flavor. The pyramid-shaped groats (buckwheat kernels) are rich in phytonutrients, and provide a good source of magnesium and fiber, including soluble fiber, which can help promote healthy blood sugar levels. Buckwheat is also high in an antioxidant called rutin, which can improve blood circulation.

Quinoa. This relative of spinach and Swiss chard was called “the mother of all grains” by the ancient Inca peoples. Quinoa has a mild, earthy, somewhat nutty flavor and a fluffy, creamy, slightly crunchy texture. It’s an excellent source of magnesium and a good source of fiber, folate, iron and zinc. You can find ivory, red and black varieties.

How to Use Pseudograins

  • Pop amaranth seeds, like popcorn, in a hot skillet
  • Add cooked quinoa to frittatas
  • Use amaranth to make a polenta-like side dish
  • Cook pseudograins like you would oatmeal for a breakfast porridge
  • Try a mix of quinoa and breadcrumbs as a coating for “chicken fingers”
  • Use amaranth or quinoa instead of rice to make a dessert pudding
  • Add buckwheat soba noodles to stirfries
  • Swap some of the regular flour for buckwheat flour in pancakes or other baked goods
  • Stir in quinoa instead of bulgur wheat to make a gluten-free tabbouleh
  • Add leftover cooked amaranth to quickbreads

Why Treat “Pseudograins” as Grains?

Even though they might not be genetically related, pseudograins fit into the diet much like “true” cereal grains. “There are lots of nutritional similarities—carbohydrates, fiber, protein, magnesium, phosphorus—between the various whole grains, pseudograins included,” says Kelly Toups, MLA, RD, LDN, director of nutrition at Oldways. There is more variability from grain to grain in the amounts of other important nutrients, like selenium and the B vitamins.

Protein Bonus

“What’s notable about pseudograins is that their protein is often considered ‘complete,’ meaning they have all of the essential amino acids in a healthy balance,” says Toups. True cereal grains don’t have enough of the amino acid lysine to count as a source of complete protein, but pseudograins do. The Institute of Medicine suggests that a complete protein contain at least 51 milligrams (mg) of lysine per gram of protein, and all three pseudo-grains meet that criterion. “While quinoa is perhaps the most famous complete protein, buckwheat and amaranth have impressive amino acid profiles as well,” Toups says. A typical 45-gram (g) or ¼ cup serving (uncooked) of quinoa has 6.35 g protein, with amaranth and buckwheat close behind at 6.10 and 5.96 g, respectively. This is just less than one ounce equivalent—7 g—of protein.

Myths About Pseudograins

Even though the botanical difference between pseudograins and true grains is clear-cut, many lists of pseudograins on the Internet erroneously include cereal grains, like wild rice and teff. Even though each of those grains has its own culinary and nutritional benefits, teff is closely related to rye, barley and corn, and wild rice is a grass, so is also a cereal.

“Probably the biggest misconception is that these naturally gluten-free pseudograins are somehow healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts, like wheat,” Toups says. “The fact is that very few people need a gluten-free diet for medical reasons. New research suggests gluten is probably not the culprit in most people who think they are gluten sensitive.”

—Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN

Quinoa with Ginger and Carrots

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

4 cloves of garlic, minced

2 large carrots, peeled and medium diced

1 Tbsp minced ginger root

2 c quinoa, uncooked

4 c water

Salt to taste (optional)

Makes 8 servings

Nutrition Information Per Serving: 181 calories, 4 grams (g) fat,
1 g saturated fat, 29 g carbohydrate, 6 g protein, 3 g dietary fiber,
1 g sugar, 18 milligrams sodium.


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