What’s So Great About Alternative Grains

What’s So Great About Alternative Grains

Remember back in the 70’s and early 80’s when pasta was white and rice was white and bread was…..well you get it. I of course have only heard of those ancient times as I graduated high school a mere 5 years ago (a girl needs a rich fantasy life!). But really, if you had a friend with a hippy trippy mom then maybe you saw some brown rice and if that friend’s name was Sunshine Moonbeam, possibly you even tried wild rice or something equally “exotic” when visiting her family at the nudist commune. What I’m getting at is grains have come a long way, baby. White bread and wheat pasta seem downright nostalgic at this point (the roller skates and rubics cube of food if you will!) and other grains have taken centre stage. While some of this may be pure trend, it turns out the “ancient” grains pack a major nutritional punch.

I spoke with Alexandra Anca, a Toronto-based registered dietitian. You may recognize her name from our post this spring about gluten. While she addresses varied issues in her practice, Anca specializes in Celiac disease, is on the Medical Advisory Board of the Canadian Celiac Association and is also Nutrition Advisor to the Toronto Chapter of the CCA. And while obviously not everybody needs to avoid wheat for health reasons, she sings the praises of alternative grains for nutritional diversity. Here’s her take on a few options.


Among grains, teff is a nutritional powerhouse! It is a grass native to Ethiopia and an excellent source of protein, calcium, iron, zinc and other important nutrients. In fact, teff has three times more calcium and twice as much iron as other grains, including wheat. It is also widely grown in South Africa, India and the northwest US.  While it is less well know in North America than some of the other grains, its popularity is on the rise and rightly so, due to its stellar nutritional profile, delicious taste and the fact that it’s suitable for a gluten free diet. It is most often cooked like porridge or polenta or made into “injera”, a common Ethiopian bread.


Grown in the Andean region of South America, quinoa is known as “the gold of the Incas” and it has been rediscovered in the last few years in North America for its versatility and nutritional benefits. Quinoa can easily be used as a swap for couscous and rice but is in fact technically not a grain, although it is classified as such. It is actually a seed from a plant closely related to beets and spinach and a great source of magnesium, iron, copper and manganese. Also gluten free, quinoa is a great vegetarian food as it provides the illusive “complete protein” so often missing from vegetarian and vegan diets. It is the only grain that contains all of the amino acids the body cannot produce on its own and that non-vegetarians so easily get with meat.


Spelt is a variety of wheat so it is not gluten free but it is often found to be more tolerable to people with wheat intolerance and it has a higher protein value that regular wheat. Spelt flour is a great option for baking as it can replace regular wheat flour with little or no effect to the final product.


Buckwheat is a bit of an imposter…it is neither wheat nor even a true grain. It is most closely related to rhubarb but is categorized along with whole grains due to its nutritional profile and uses…hello, pancakes! Buckwheat has 2 major claims to fame: it’s hardy, thriving in inhospitable surroundings with no pesticides and, according to The Whole Grains Council, “it’s the only grain known to have high levels of an antioxidant called rutin, and studies show that it improves circulation and prevents LDL cholesterol from blocking blood vessel”.

So many choices! Swap some quinoa in for your usual rice side dish one night or try making your favourite muffins a little healthier with spelt flour. And check out the mind boggling options to traditional wheat pasta available at even the most basic grocery store these days…with choices like lentil shells for mac and cheese, brown rice penne for baked ziti and  buckwheat lasagne noodles, you can get a little more nutrition into your family and still enjoy all your old favourites. Because really, isn’t a little nostalgia a good thing? I’m off to roller skate now….just need to find my leg warmers and baby blue satin jacket and I’m all set!

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  1. Lisa
    August 30, 21:42 Reply

    Thanks for the tips. I am a big quinoa fan but have not used these other grains. I hope you will post some recipe ideas.

  2. Ceri Marsh
    August 31, 09:57 Reply

    Hi Lisa,
    Glad you liked it! Will definitely be doing more whole grain recipes. Is there one in particular you’d like to us to try out?
    Thanks for reading!

  3. Beth
    August 31, 11:14 Reply

    Great article! I work with Kamut Brand Khorasan wheat, another ancient grain and love using Kamut flour to make bread, pancakes, waffles and more! I’m getting hungry just thinking about it 🙂

  4. Terra
    May 31, 09:34 Reply

    I’m reluctant to admit it, but I’m not a fan of quinoa and neither are my kids. I would love to know SPC’s favourite quinoa recipes!

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