Years ago, when the gluten-free diet was new on the scene in clinical practice, I would roll my eyes at the idea of the then seemingly way-off assumptions that so many people were gluten sensitive.
Fast forward nearly 20 years and I’ve grown to understand that gluten can play an astonishing role in influencing several health conditions, and not just digestive conditions, but immune and hormone conditions too.
I see non-coeliac gluten sensitivity more frequently today in the clinic than ever, which makes me wonder if there is more to this health concern than meets the eye.
For some clarity here, coeliac disease is a serious immune condition, whereby consumption of even minuscule amounts of gluten can set off a range of symptoms for an individual.
Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity is a lot less serious and is not considered a disease as such.
For most people with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, they have come to a conclusion, or self-diagnosis after a period of trial and error with their diet. That is, they cut out gluten and their symptoms subside, then when they re-introduce gluten – their symptoms return.
You would be correct if you were thinking this sounds pretty vague, and that’s because it is! Unlike coeliac disease, there’s no affirmative medical test that can confirm non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.
What is gluten?
Technically speaking, gluten is a general term used to describe a range of proteins that are naturally found in a variety of grains. These proteins are known to produce an immune response with coeliac disease, and although gluten is the term that is widely used to describe this protein, the term ‘gluten’ is also used to describe prolamin and glutelin.
Gluten is often referred to as a structural protein, it provides the ‘doughiness’ that is needed for the texture of bakery items.
Wheat is the most common gluten-containing grain used in the Australian diet. It is found in almost all pastries, bread, and biscuits, but also many packaged foods – sauces, condiments, crackers and even confectionary items.
Other gluten-containing grains include barley, spelt, Khorasan (previously known as kamut), rye and triticale.
But what about Oats, are they gluten-free?
There is some debate about whether oats are a truly gluten-free grain. Now if you were diagnosed with coeliac disease, you would probably err on the side of caution with oats. However, if you were a stickler for rules, you might argue that oats contain a protein called avenin, which is technically not considered to be gluten, however, the structure of avenin is similar to gluten and because of this, for some individuals, oats are off the menu.
Aside from the avenin-gluten argument, there can be another issue with oats, and that is the contamination of oats from neighbouring crops, such as wheat or rye. As they are often grown in neighbouring fields and harvested and milled with the same equipment, natural gluten contamination can occur with oat harvesting right through to packaging.
This of course creates confusion around whether oats are gluten-free, and also if they are suitable for someone who is non-coeliac gluten sensitive.
My experience with gluten-free grains
My personal experiences with health and nutrition have led me to research more in this field on grains and gluten. Over the years I’ve experimented with gluten-free and grain-free diets, for my own health conditions.
I’ve been up and down with gluten over the years and have come to the conclusion that my body functions so much better without gluten. When I am entirely gluten-free, I feel less bloated, my weight normalises, brain fog disappears, period pain subsides and my seasonal allergies are much more manageable.
A couple of things that strike me as fascinating around gluten and grains are – firstly, the massive reliance that processed food has on wheat. Once you look at what you’re eating, and start reading labels on packaged foods, you can see how wheat (and gluten) sneaks its way into your diet without you even realising it.
The other thing is the range of gluten-free grains and pseudo-grains that we have available to us in Australia is quite phenomenal. We have such a variety of grains available, it seems ludicrous that we need to lean so heavily on wheat as a food source in Australia.
So, what are Pseudo-grains?
Just as their name suggests, pseudo-grains are not technically grains, but they are used in the diet in a similar way to actual grains. The simple distinction between grains and pseudo-grains comes down to their botanical origins. Grains are the edible seeds from grass, such as wheat, oats and rice, whereas pseudo-grains are the edible seeds of leafy plants.
As pseudo-grains are not in the same botanical category (Poaceae family) as all gluten-containing grains, they are all naturally gluten-free. Examples of pseudo-grains include quinoa, amaranth, wild rice, kaniwa and buckwheat.
My Top Five Grains (& Pseudo-Grains) for a Gluten-Free Diet
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m quite a fan of pseudo-grains. These seeds are known to be naturally gluten-free – no question about it, and packed with flavour and nutrition. It can take some time to get used to cooking with whole grains and seeds though. I encourage you to try cooking with small amounts and experiment with different styles of cooking, these ones are my favourite five:
Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa)
This tiny little high-protein pseudo-grain has made its way into the modern Australian diet with bold and somewhat daring confidence.
The key to quinoa is its ease of cooking. You can put it in a pan with a nominal amount of water, bring it to a boil, take it off the heat and put it aside until the grain has soaked up all of the water it needs – just pour off any excess water and away you go. You can know that quinoa is cooked when the seed becomes translucent and the ‘tail’ becomes prominent.
Quinoa can easily slide into a meal as a salad addition, mixed with brown rice, served with a stir fry or as a companion to soups and casseroles.
The popularity of quinoa has meant it is readily available in most supermarkets and health food stores.
However, quinoa is known for its tummy-irritating saponins that are located on the outside of the grain. For this reason, it is suggested that you always rinse the grain before cooking, and those with sensitive digestive systems should avoid any processed quinoa products including quinoa flour or quinoa flakes.
Amaranth (Amaranthus sp.)
You’ve probably seen some kind of amaranth growing on the side of the road. Theres all different types of amaranth, apparently over 70 different types, and they’re all edible. The leaves are often used as a substitute for spinach in meals, and then the seeds are used like a grain.
As another pseudo-grain, that is rich in protein, I have to say that amaranth is currently my favourite gluten-free grain. Amaranth tends to get a bit gluggy when you cook it, a bit like old-fashioned tapioca porridge, which is what I love about it. I will cook up some amaranth for breakfast and add some spices, grated apple and sunflower seeds and eat it like a breakfast porridge.
The consistency of cooked amaranth lends itself well to ‘glueing’ together veggie patties and vegetable loaf. Once you become familiar with this grain, you’ll realise the versatility of amaranth in cooking.
With the abundance of amaranth growing on the planet, I wonder why it isn’t a readily available food at supermarkets. Yes, you can find it at some health food stores, but occasionally you can find Australian online bulk suppliers like Nut Grocer Australia, Pantree, or Nuts About Life who sell a range of wholegrains and seeds, including amaranth.
Buckwheat (Fagopyrum escelentum)
If you’ve ever travelled to Eastern Europe – especially Poland or Russia, you’ve probably eaten little pancakes (bliny graczane) made from buckwheat flour. Buckwheat is a staple in Eastern Europe, with the groats or seeds made into a delicious porridge, used in stuffings, cabbage rolls and pierogi – Polish dumplings.
Buckwheat is a pseudo-grain that has the most interesting triangular seed, or inner groat and although the name suggests it is a type of wheat, its closest botanical relative is rhubarb.
Nutritionally, buckwheat is a powerhouse of magnesium and calcium and is one of the rare foods high in rutin – a bioflavonoid that is beneficial for the cardiovascular and lymphatic systems. You’ll notice when cooking buckwheat that the cooking water takes on a purple-orange colour – this I believe is due to the rutin content of the seed.
The versatility of buckwheat is quite remarkable, you’ll find buckwheat pancake mix, buckwheat crispbreads and buckwheat pasta at your local health food store. Buckwheat flour is a common ingredient in gluten-free flour mixes and sprouted buckwheat is a great, nutty and crunchy alternative in a pilaf.
Buckwheat seeds are easy to cook, and I tend to prepare them in the same low-fuss way as quinoa. Grains plus water in a pan, bring to a boil and then take off the heat to allow for the absorption of water. I find this lazy cooking technique avoids the need to exactly time the cooking of buckwheat and will allow the grains to keep their shape.
I’ve found, overcooking buckwheat tends to release the mucilage of the seed, the grain will become a little slimy and at this stage the seed starts to become a little mushy. If you’re after a porridgy comfort food for winter, this will do the trick – I suggest combining it with some stewed rhubarb and some spices and you’ve got a deliciously nutritious breakfast or snack.
Wild Rice (Zizania palustris)
Not technically a rice, but piled into this category, I’m guessing because of the shape of the seed. Not to be mistaken for red rice or black rice, wild rice is also not a grain, but a pseudo-grain. Native to Northern America, wild rice is packed with fibre and protein, it’s chewy, nutty and beautifully aromatic.
Wild rice is said to be alkaline-forming as opposed to most grains which are acid-forming and perfectly ideal for a grain-free plant-based diet.
Wild rice takes some time to cook, around 45 minutes, and I like to mix it with other gluten-free grains such as brown rice to add texture and colour to a dish. For dinner, a simple bed of wild rice, some steamed veggies and your choice of legume … yum.
Other than availability, one of the biggest issues with wild rice is its price, though. It is the most costly gluten-free grain on this list and rightly so, it is a labour-intensive crop and harvested on the other side of the world.
Teff (Eragrostis tef)
The only true grain on this list. Teff is native to Ethiopia and has only been readily available in Australia in the last few years. In traditional Ethiopian cooking, teff is ground into flour and fermented to form a base for their big pancakes called injera. If you’ve ever had traditional injera (made with teff and not wheat), they really are light, fluffy and flavoursome.
Teff is a tiny little grain, I mean tiny, but it packs a whole lot of nutritional punch. Not only is it loaded with fibre and protein, but it’s also rich in iron and magnesium. You can smell the earthy-richness of teff while you are cooking it, it has a robust flavour too.
Like amaranth, teff can get kind of sticky when you cook it up, many suggest that you ‘fluff up’ the grain after cooking to separate the grains, but I prefer to allow it to stay quite porridgy and I’ve been known to let it cool and cut it up into ‘croutons’ to add to salads.
You can get hold of teff from some health food stores, but in honesty, it can be a little hard to get hold of. Teff Tribe is one brand that I quite like, they have a range of different teff products, including teff flour, and have several recipes on their website too.
Each one of these gluten-free grains has some unique qualities, and although this is not an exhaustive list of gluten-free grains, this is the most nutritious and tasty start to your journey with gluten-free eating.
I would love to hear about your experiences with gluten-free grains, which ones are your favourite and what kinds of dishes you have prepared with them.
The information provided in this article is for information purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. We recommend you consult with a GP or other healthcare professional before taking action based on this article. While the author uses their best endeavours to provide accurate and true content, the author makes no guarantees or promises regarding the accuracy, reliability, or completeness of the information presented. If you rely on any information provided in this article, you do so at your own risk.