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Timeless Grains : After centuries as feed for birds and animals, seeds such as quinoa and amaranth are finding an increasingly significant place in a healthier American diet.

June 15, 1989|TONI TIPTON

The so-called "new grains" are not really new at all; neither is oat bran. But in the American quest for better health, oat bran was delivered from the barnyard to the breakfast table. And, likewise, the new grains may be liberated from the bird cage.

Although vegetarians and health-food enthusiasts long have known of the virtues of whole grains--experimenting with them as a means of achieving an alternative source of complete protein--most others considered them best suited for horse and bird feed.

That may be changing.

Ethnic cuisines have paved the way for widespread interest in whole-grain cookery--familiarizing partakers with couscous, arborio rice, polenta and bulgur. And today, as more and more Americans proceed from good taste to good health, a fascination with ancient forms of fiber--including such "new grains" as amaranth, quinoa and triticale--has begun to develop.

According to Food Marketing Institute's annual nationwide shopper survey, "Trends/Consumer Attitude and the Supermarket--1989," Americans have grown increasingly aware of the correlation between good nutrition and good health and have undertaken a variety of behaviors to ensure that their diets are healthful. This includes eating more fruits and vegetables and more fiber, the report states.

The survey reported that 76% of the American shoppers queried indicated that nutrition was a very important factor when they purchased food--up 4% from last year's data.

The American Cancer Society, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in its "Dietary Guidelines for Americans," and the National Cancer Institute all have emphasized a high-fiber diet. They point to a low incidence of cancer and other degenerative diseases in populations where this type of diet is maintained.

One of the most widely emphasized ways to increase intake of dietary fiber from what specialists in the field say is the current average adult intake of 11 grams per day to the recommended 25 to 30 grams is to add whole grains--products that contain the entire grain or as much of it as is edible--to the diet. That's where the new grains come in.

Although there is an assortment of familiar whole grains available in supermarkets--whole wheat, cracked wheat, bulgur, oats, whole cornmeal, popcorn, brown rice, whole rye and barley--some health watchers are turning to the local health-food store or the health-food section of the supermarket for supplies of unusual whole grains.

Triticale, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), millet and amaranth are just a few of the equally versatile and delicious whole grains that have begun appearing on shelves next to the barley, bulgur and buckwheat as well as in recipe books.

Triticale is a hybrid grain, the offspring of wheat and rye. Its kernels are larger than those of either parent and they retain their crunch even after soaking and cooking. Triticale can be purchased flaked, a form very similar to oats or wheat flakes, or as flour.

Quinoa, a tan-colored, birdseed-like grain is popular for its high protein and calcium content. It is high in the amino acid lysine, which most other whole grains lack, making it a complete source of protein. Quinoa seeds have a distinctive flavor upon cooking, and the grain is excellent in savory dishes. Because of a natural coating called saponin, quinoa requires thorough rinsing before cooking.

Millet is probably the most familiar of the new grains. In this country it is used as the basis of birdseed mixtures. In Ethiopia, however, millet flour is made into a spongy, crepelike meal accompaniment-- injera. This fine-textured grain has a long shelf life and an endless array of uses from pilaf to stuffing to salads. Use millet anywhere rice can be used as an ingredient. It may even be toasted before adding to recipes.

The only real newcomer of the group is a commercial product, Kashi, a combination of seven whole grains and sesame. It is found in supermarkets where cereals and grains are sold. It is available in puffed form for eating out of hand or as a cold cereal, or in its original state as a pilaf that can be cooked and eaten as cereal or mixed with other ingredients in savory dishes.

These and the other whole grains are basically seeds that are eaten whole or are sprouted, cooked, milled, cracked, rolled or ground into flakes. They are highly nutritious, excellent sources of protein, carbohydrates, some B vitamins, Vitamin E, magnesium and zinc.

In their whole form, these grains have three major portions, although most contain a dry, rough outer covering--the husk or hull. Located just under the husk is the bran, a darker outer layer that serves as a protective coating. The region toward one end of the kernel is the germ, which contains most of the oil, vitamins and minerals needed for growth of the new plant. The lighter, larger, starchy inner portion of the kernel is called the endosperm. This is the region used for making flour.

In health-food stores, whole grains can be purchased in just about all forms.

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