6 Gluten-Free Grains That Aren’t Rice

By Molly Knudsen, MS, RDN

It’s no longer going against the grain to go gluten-free. While a gluten-free diet is essential for the over 1.7 million Americans and for the up to 6% of the population experiencing nonceliac gluten sensitivity, more and more Americans are opting for a gluten-free lifestyle.1,2 Data from 2009 to 2014 show that 2.7 million people in the US report adhering to a gluten-free diet without having a medical need.3  

The food industry has also catered to meet the growing demand in the gluten-free market.2 Even with the abundant selection of gluten-free breads, cookies, and other treats at grocery stores, packaged gluten-free goodies don’t necessarily deserve the health halo people usually associate with the term gluten-free. These products may be highly processed, high in calories, and potentially high in sugar and sodium.

Although these packaged gluten-free foods are convenient, incorporating naturally occurring gluten-free carbohydrate sources into the diet are the better choice. Many people associate gluten with all grains or cereals, and that’s not the case. There are many gluten-free grains that are not only a substitute for wheat products, but also outshine them on flavor and nutrition.

1. Amaranth

Amaranth is technically considered a pseudocereal. Unlike cereal grains that stem from the seeds of grasses (like wheat and rice), pseudocereals come from nongrasses, but they are still counted as a grain because they are similar nutritionally and culinarily to grains.4 The amaranth seed falls into this category. It was a staple in Mesoamerica, and the Aztecs called it the “food of immortality.”5

Nutritionally, amaranth is considered a complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids. It also has about twice the amount of iron than quinoa, its close relative.6

Amaranth has an earthy, nutty flavor. Cooking amaranth requires a 1:2 seed-to-water ratio. Try cooked amaranth as an alternative to oatmeal for breakfast. Or toast the dry seeds in oil on the stovetop and add on top of salads for a fiber and protein boost or toss them into homemade granola.

2. Buckwheat

Buckwheat is another example of a pseudocereal. Buckwheat cultivation originated in China and central Asia.7 It has gained popularity in recent years due to its gluten-free status and its mineral and flavanol composition. Rutin is a flavonol found in buckwheat that isn’t found in other grains.8 Preclinical lab and animal studies indicate that rutin may play a role in brain, heart, and digestive health, but human studies are lacking so its exact impact on health isn’t clear.8

Buckwheat has a high protein content and an intriguing amino acid profile.7 It is especially rich in lysine and also contains more arginine and aspartic acid than other grains or pseudograins.7

Buckwheat can be found as groats, flour, or noodles.

  • Groats: Buckwheat groats are the hulled seeds of the plant are can be used to make a great porridge
  • Flour: This is made from ground buckwheat groats and can be used to bake breads, muffins, or pancakes
  • Noodles: Soba is the Japanese name for buckwheat noodles, which can be served hot in broth or chilled

3. Millet

Millet is actually a gluten-free cereal grain. It’s a coarse cereal, resembling oats or barley. There are many varieties of millet including finger, pearl, kodo, foxtail, little, and barnyard millet.9 Millet varieties are native to many African and Asian countries and are integral ingredients to traditional foods like breads and porridges.9

Compared to other cereal grains like wheat and rice, millets are considered to have a more favorable nutrient profile.9 For example, pearl millet is rich in resistant starch, both soluble and insoluble fiber, and antioxidants.9 Millets also have higher amounts of calcium than other grains.6,9

Cook millet in a 1:2 grain-to-water ratio. It can be served sweet, such as for breakfast with milk, maple syrup, and cinnamon, or savory mixed with carrots, spinach, and spices. Puffed millet can also be found at many grocery stores and makes for a great, no-sugar-added breakfast cereal.

4. Teff

Teff is one of the many types of millets, but it’s distinct enough to get its own category. Teff is tiny in size and is central to the Ethiopian diet. Around two-thirds of Ethiopians’ daily protein intake comes from teff, and it is the main ingredient of injera, a fermented, thin, spongy, flatbread, which is the base of most meals.10 Stews and salads are traditionally served on top of the injera, and people then tear off a piece and use it to pinch the food on top to eat.

Teff has the highest calcium content to all other grains, pseduograins, and even other millets. One cup of cooked teff contains 123 mg of calcium, which is about the same as one-third cup of almonds.6 Teff is also a good source of resistant starches. It’s estimated that about 20-40% of teff’s carbohydrate content is resistant starches.10

Besides injera, teff can be used to make porridge or pancakes. Teff is becoming more prevalent in packaged foods too, thanks to the gluten-free market, and can now be found in cereals and wraps.11

5. Quinoa

Around 15 years ago, most people were probably still mispronouncing the word quinoa, and you could only find it in boutique health stores. Now, quinoa seems to have fully infiltrated into a common grain choice in the US, and it’s no secret that it’s a popular gluten-free option. Quinoa, also classified as a pseudocereal, is native to the Andean region of South America. This plant thrives in the high altitudes of Peru and Bolivia and grows on magenta-colored stalks that can reach nine feet in height.12

These little seeds are nutritional powerhouses. Quinoa not only acts as a whole grain, but it’s also considered a complete protein with 15% of its calories coming from protein.12 A serving of quinoa is also a good source of copper, fiber, and iron and contains beneficial plant compounds like polyphenols and flavonoids.12,13

Quinoa is a pretty bland product when cooked on its own but easily takes on flavor from spices, sauces, or seasonings it’s prepared with. It also requires a 1:2 grain-to-water ratio, but be careful—it triples in quantity once it’s cooked. So if you’re looking to make one cup of cooked quinoa, use 1/3 cup dry product and 2/3 cup water. Cooked quinoa can be tossed into salads or as a replacement for rice in casseroles or side dishes (be sure to adjust the cooking time for quinoa instead of rice accordingly). Try quinoa for breakfast in place of oatmeal or use it as a bed for an over-easy egg.

6. Sorghum

Sorghum is an ancient grain first cultivated thousands of years ago in Northeastern Africa.14 This cereal grain flourishes in tropical or subtropical areas. This grain is high in resistant starch and is a reservoir for beneficial phenolic compounds, which are more concentrated in the bran layer of the grain.14

Sorghum has a pretty mild, earthy flavor. Whole-grain sorghum can be used similarly to rice, and sorghum flour is a popular gluten-free flour to bake with, as it is more neutral in flavor and less grainy than other gluten-free flours. Sorghum can also be popped like popcorn for a tasty snack.

At a Glance: Nutrition Profile of Gluten Free Grains6

1 cup cooked grainsCaloriesProtein (grams)Carbohydrates (grams)Fat (grams)Fiber (grams)
Amaranth2519.34645.7
Buckwheat58313.31225.817
Millet2076.141.21.72.3
Teff2559.8501.67.1
Quinoa2228.139.43.65.2
Sorghum 32610.672.13.56.7

Get more tips on going gluten-free and more in the Metagenics blog.

References:

  1. Rubio-Tapia A et al. The prevalence of celiac disease in the United States. Am J Gasteroenterol. 2012;107(10):1538-1544.
  2. Igbinedion SO et al. Non-celiac gluten sensitiviey: All wheat attack is not celiac. World J Gastroenterol. 2017;23(40):7201-7210.
  3. Kim HS et al. Time trends in the prevalence of celiac disease and gluten-free diet in the US population: Results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys 2009-2014. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(11):1716–1717.
  4. Bekkering CS et al. Thinking outside of the cereal box: Breeding underutilized (pseudo)cereals for improved human nutrition. Front Gent. 2019; 10:1289.
  5. Amaranth-May grain of the month. Wholegrainscouncil.org. https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/grain-month-calendar/amaranth-may-grain-month. Accessed October 19, 2020.
  6. FoodData Central. Fdc.nal.usda.gov, Accessed October 1, 2020.
  7. Zhang ZL et al. Bioactive compounds in functional buckwheat food. Food Res Int. 2012;40(1);389-395.
  8. Ganeshpurkar A et al. The pharmacological potential of rutin. Saudi Pharm J. 2017;25(2):149-164.
  9. Saleh ASM et al. Millet grains: Nutritional quality, processing, and potential health benefits. Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf. 2013;12(3):281-295.
  10. Millet and teff-November grains of the month. Wholegrainscouncil.org. https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/grain-month-calendar/millet-and-teff-–-november-grains-month. Accessed October 19, 2020.
  11. Zhu F et al. Chemical composition and food uses of teff (Eragrostis tef). Food Chem. 2018;239:402-415.
  12. Abugoch James LE et al. Chapter 1 quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.): Composition, chemistry, nutritional, and functional properties. Adv Food Nutr Res. 2009;58:1-31.
  13. Quinoa-March grain of the month. Wholegrainscouncil.org. https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/grain-month-calendar/quinoa-–-march-grain-month. Accessed October 19, 2020.
  14. Xiong Y et al. Sorghum grain: From genotype, nutrition, and phenolic profile to its health benefits and food applications. Comp Rev Food Sci Food Saf. 2019;18(6):2025-2046.
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About Molly Knudsen

Molly Knudsen, MS, RDN is a writer at Metagenics. She completed her dietetic training with an emphasis on nutrition education at Texas Christian University and earned a Master of Science in Nutrition Interventions, Communication, and Behavior Change from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Knudsen has experience working with commodity boards and providing student athletes with nutrition coaching. She now practices nutrition education by digesting complex nutrition science through the written word.

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