Are Pseudo-Grains as Good for You as Real Grains?

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If you’re determined to go grain-free because you’re removing gluten from your diet or you’re sticking to a Paleo diet, then pseudo-grains might be a smart substitute. However, some experts warn that pseudo-grains are far from perfect.

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What are pseudo-grains?

Amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa are three of the most prominent and beneficial pseudo-grains. Whereas traditional, or cereal, grains come from grasses, pseudo-grains resemble grains like wheat and oats but come from bushes or shrubs, registered dietitian nutritionist Emily Cooper says.

“One of the pros of pseudo-grains is that they naturally do not contain gluten, which can be a suitable alternative for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance,” Cooper says.

They’re also a suitable alternative for Paleo dieters, who avoid “industrialized” grains like wheat, oats, corn and rice.

Also, pseudo-grains are a good source of protein, fiber and minerals.

‘Healthiest foods on earth’

CleanCuisine.com declares that pseudo-grains “are among the healthiest foods on earth.”

Aside from being rich in protein, fiber and minerals, quinoa and buckwheat contain high levels of phytonutrients and flavonoids, both of which can help lower the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, registered dietitian Laura Schoenfeld writes on her website.

Meanwhile, amaranth — an ingredient in many gluten-free foods — can decrease the risk of cancer, heart disease and hypertension, Schoenfeld says.

“My favorite of these pseudo-grains is buckwheat. Buckwheat isn’t even a grain, despite having the word ‘wheat’ in its name,” Schoenfeld writes. “Botanically speaking, it’s a fruit. And buckwheat is one of the easiest starches for my clients to digest, making it a great way to bump up carb intake on a restricted diet.”

The 411 on amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa

What follows are in-depth facts about amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa, courtesy of the Chopra Center, Men’s Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Amaranth

Amaranth, first cultivated 6,000 to 8,000 years ago in Peru, is a seed rather than a grain.

Amaranth tastes a little like pepper and often is toasted before being cooked. People in South America eat popped amaranth, just as we here in North America eat popcorn. Amaranth frequently shows up in breakfast cereals and porridges.

One cup of amaranth contains:

  • 252 calories
  • 9 grams of protein
  • 5 grams of fiber
  • 4 grams of fat
  • 28 milligrams of vitamin B6
  • 1 micrograms of folate
  • 2 milligrams of iron
  • 160 milligrams of magnesium
  • 364 milligrams of phosphorus
  • 1 milligrams of manganese

Buckwheat

Like amaranth, buckwheat is a seed, not a grain. It initially was cultivated in Europe around 4,000 B.C., but it likely dates back more than 8,000 years. It was among the first crops planted by American settlers.

Pyramid-shaped buckwheat seeds are found in gluten-free cereals, porridges and pancakes.

One cup of buckwheat contains:

  • 155 calories
  • 6 grams of protein
  • 5 grams of fiber
  • 1 gram of fat
  • 25 milligrams of copper
  • 68 milligrams of manganese
  • 7 milligrams of magnesium

Quinoa

As with its pseudo-grain cousins amaranth and buckwheat, quinoa is a seed, not a grain. The people of Bolivia and Peru started cultivating quinoa more than 5,000 years ago; the most common varieties are white, red and black.

One cup of quinoa contains:

  • 222 calories
  • 8 grams of protein
  • 5 grams of fiber
  • 4 grams of fat
  • 118 milligrams of magnesium
  • 281 milligrams of phosphorus
  • 2 milligrams of manganese

The downside of pseudo-grains

To be sure, pseudo-grains offer nutritional advantages, but they’ve got drawbacks, too.

For one thing, pseudo-grains such as buckwheat are permitted on the Paleo diet, both traditional and pseudo-grains are banned from another popular eating plan, the Whole30 diet.

Perhaps more concerning is the effect that pseudo-grains can have on gut health.

On her website, Dr. Amy Myers, a physician who specializes in functional medicine, raises concerns about how undigested pseudo-grains, traditional grains and legumes can contribute to a leaky gut.

Since they’re not fully digested, pseudo-grains, traditional grains and legumes pass through the gut barrier intact, according to Myers. This process helps increase the permeability of the gut barrier by harming the cells that line the gut, she says, and by causing an inflammatory response once they’re outside the gut.

That starts a cycle where the particles of pseudo-grains, traditional grains and legumes trigger inflammation, which impairs the gut lining, Myers says. The lining then turns more permeable, enabling undigested food, toxins and bacteria to produce leaky gut.

“Your body can confuse these foreign ‘invaders’ with your own tissues … . Soon, the immune response gets out of control and begins to affect more tissues and systems within the body, and autoimmunity results,” Myers says.