Against the Grain

Allergy-Fighting Alternatives To Wheat And Rice Offer Many Nutritional Advantages

Ann Foster, an avid camper and hiker originally from Arkansas, dreamed for years of moving to the mountains of Colorado. But when that dream finally came true, Foster found herself sidelined with joint pain so severe that it was sometimes a challenge to walk across the room, let alone hike the Rockies.

Illustration Copyright Lisa Blackshear

Foster had taken very expensive arthritis medicine for years, but her joint pain only worsened. One thing she found in the Boulder area besides mountains was access to alternative medicine practitioners. Her physician recommended complete testing for food allergies, and they revealed that Foster was allergic to wheat, rice, eggs, milk and other common foods.

After changing her diet, Foster’s joint pain disappeared and she was able to resume her normal, active lifestyle. And, she was able to stop spending $100 per month on arthritis medicine. “People probably won’t believe it, but I was cured within two weeks,” says Foster, who had expected to struggle with arthritis pain the rest of her life. “It was miraculous.”

Prior to finding out she had food allergies, Foster had adopted a diet heavy in rice and bread products that actually made the problems worse. After the allergy diagnosis, she switched to a basic diet composed primarily of fresh fruit, vegetables and nuts—as well as wheat and rice alternatives such as quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), rye and kamut. These often-ancient replacements for staple grains are gaining in popularity, and their many positive nutritional qualities recommend them as health food for today. Modern chefs are developing new and creative ways of preparing these grain replacements. In the process, they’re also preserving ancient plant varieties, as well as helping diversify America’s mono-cropped farms.

“War Balls” No More

Kamut, also known as “Egyptian wheat,” has been found sealed in graves in the pyramids. Although closely related to wheat, some people who react badly to that staple grain can still tolerate kamut. Kamut is nutritionally superior, and many people who try it think it has a better taste. Kamut does contain gluten, though, so it shouldn’t be eaten by people with celiac disease (gluten intolerance).

Foster’s favorite alternative to rice is quinoa. She likes its flavor, its high protein content, and the fact that it cooks easily in the microwave. Rich in vitamins, quinoa also provides a complete protein that contains all eight amino acids. Technically, quinoa is not a true grain: It’s more closely related to beets and spinach. An important crop of the ancient Incas, it was mixed with fat to make “war balls,” food used to sustain Incan armies during campaigns. It’s known today as “little rice” in South America.

Another crop native to South America that isn’t truly a grain, but is often used as a grain substitute, is amaranth. Amaranth was considered to have supernatural powers by the ancient Aztec civilization, where it was used to make figures of various gods, which were then eaten in religious ceremonies. The practice was banned by the Spanish conquistadors, who considered it a parody of the holy communion host.

Besides being a trendy food in the U.S., amaranth has been widely used in Mexico to combat malnutrition. “We believe that amaranth is an alternative crop of high potential, and have worked on the reintroduction of its cultivation throughout Mexico,” says Diego Manrique de Lara, commercial director of a Mexican company, San Miguel de Proyectos Agropecuarios. de Lara adds that the company is concentrating on introducing the plant in small, rural communities. “It is a food that is easily reintroduced in the diet of the local population,” says de Lara, “and its addition into the staple diet of Mexico provides a balanced nutritional profile, which corn and beans alone do not.”

Amaranth, which has high protein content and, like quinoa, contains all eight amino acids, has environmental advantages, since it is significantly hardier and more drought-resistant than other staple crops. Advocates say that amaranth requires significantly less pesticides and fertilizers than other crops, and it is usually grown without irrigation, making usable parcels of semi-arid land that would otherwise lie fallow or give very low yields of corn.

However, amaranth alone can’t be used to make bread because it doesn’t have gluten, a nutritious mix of plant proteins. In Mexico, amaranth is primarily mixed with non-gluten maize, resulting in an allergy-resistant bread. Jorge Ortega, president of Acadia Corporation, which sells amaranth and other products, describes it as having a nutty taste, and a delicious aroma. “Bakery products with amaranth are gold colored and have a very nice texture,” he says. “But you will have to mix amaranth with other ingredients, because it is very strong.”

Natural Spelt

Another grain alternative that is increasingly popular in the U.S. is spelt, a relative of wheat that, like kamut, has been found in the tombs of ancient Egyptians. Don Stinchcomb, president of Purity Foods, says that his company became interested in marketing spelt after naturopathic physicians in the Detroit area began recommending it to their patients with chronic debilitative diseases such as cancer. Some, but not all, people who have wheat allergies can tolerate spelt.

“The advantage of spelt is that is easier to digest than virtually any other type of grain,” Stinchcomb says. Recently interest was also piqued by the publication of the book Cook Right for Your Blood Type, written by Peter D’Adamo, the author of Eat Right for Your Blood Type. D’Adamo recommends spelt for all blood types, and includes it in 22 of 25 bread recipes in the newer book. D’Adamo believes spelt will be the next staple grain. “We’ve been getting a lot of telephone calls about spelt,” he says.

Like the others, spelt contains all eight amino acids, and is high in complex carbohydrates. Stinchcomb says it is even more palatable than wheat, which allows it to be used in whole grain form in products such as pasta, which may not taste great when made from whole wheat. Other spelt advantages include a higher resistance to disease and pests than wheat, and the ability to be grown using a third less nitrogen fertilizer.

With all of these grain alternatives, there will be a period of adjustment, but some restaurateurs say that blazing a culinary trail has been well worth the effort. “Any grain that’s not refined or polished has health benefits,” says Jeanette Maier, head chef at New York City’s Urban Kitchen. “Consumers are becoming more aware of alternative grains, and they like them. I can now get spelt bread from a variety of companies, and once more restaurants use alternative grains, the consumer demand will make them even more available.” Scott Campbell, chef at Avenue Bistro, also in New York, adds, “I use a bunch of alternative grains in my dishes. They’re practically a habit here.”

Products made from spelt, amaranth, quinoa, kamut and other wheat alternatives can be purchased at most health food stories.