Buckwheat may look like, cook like, and taste like a grain but, surprisingly, it’s not a grain at all.
Angela Ginn-Meadow, RD, LDN, CDE, a Baltimore based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, says, “Buckwheat is actually a fruit seed that’s related to rhubarb. We refer to it as a pseudo cereal, like amaranth and quinoa.”
The ancient peoples of southeast Asia were the first to cultivate buckwheat as early as 6000 BC. From there, the fast-growing fruit that thrives even in poor soil with no pesticides and little fertilizer spread to the Middle East and Europe, where it still has a place at the table in local cuisines. Immigrants from Holland brought buckwheat to the United States in the 1600s and gave the mock grain its name. The Dutch word boekweit translates to “beech wheat” and plays off buckwheat’s resemblance to beechnuts and its wheatlike traits.
John McMath, marketing consultant for The Birkett Mills, one of two major buckwheat producers in the United States, says, “Buckwheat is a highly nourishing food. In the old days, Vermont farmers would eat a big breakfast of buckwheat pancakes. The complex carbohydrates and fiber in buckwheat would keep them filled up and fueled up for their heavy work.”
BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONSBuckwheat hasn’t been named a superfood, but it should be.
First, it’s a fiber-rich food. One cup of buckwheat provides 4.5 grams of dietary fiber. This compares with 3.9 grams of fiber in an identical serving of oatmeal or 2 grams in a slice of whole wheat bread. Animal research conducted by Korean scientists in 2008 revealed that the fiber in buckwheat can help reduce several risk factors for heart disease, including elevated triglycerides, total cholesterol, and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Buckwheat works these wonders by moving food swiftly through the digestive track, thus leaving little time for the absorption of fats. This effect also promotes a healthy digestive tract.
Second, another source of buckwheat’s disease preventing effects is rutin, a flavonoid also found in citrus and other fruits that enhances vitamin C’s antioxidant capabilities. Studies have shown rutin also can help prevent varicose veins, boost immunity, and improve bone density.
Finally, buckwheat contains a rich source of magnesium. A 1-cup serving provides 86 milligrams—nearly one quarter of the daily recommended intake for this essential mineral. In 2006, Harvard researchers who looked at the diets of the nearly 42,000 participants in the Black Women’s Health Study found that women who ate the most whole grains and had the highest intake of magnesium had the lowest risk of type 2 diabetes. Daily consumption of low-fat dairy products was also a helpful diabetes preventative. Put this knowledge to good use at the breakfast table and get a really powerful start to the day. For example, feast on hot buckwheat cereal made with skim milk and a side of fresh sliced oranges or buckwheat pancakes topped with nonfat yogurt and bowl of cherries or an apricot.
But the benefits of buckwheat don’t stop there. Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Boston-based Whole Grains Council, says, “Studies have shown that the fiber in buckwheat can prevent gallstone formation, that sprouted buckwheat can lower blood pressure and protect against fatty liver disease, and that buckwheat flour can be used as a fat replacer in bread-making.”
AT THE STORE, IN THE KITCHENBuckwheat comes in a variety of forms: groats, cream of buckwheat for cereal, and buckwheat flour. “Whole buckwheat groats are mild flavored,” says McMath. “Roasting them will bring out a nutty flavor. Roasted buckwheat groats, which go by the name kasha, are available in whole, coarse, medium, and fine textures. Buckwheat groats make a great substitute for rice or barley.”
To prepare buckwheat groats, rinse first to remove any dirt or debris. Then measure one part buckwheat and stir into two parts boiling water or broth. Bring the liquid back to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed. One cup of cooked buckwheat groats provides 155 calories, 5 grams of protein, 33 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of fat, 7 milligrams of sodium, and no cholesterol.
Use cooked buckwheat groats to make a pilaf or tabbouleh salad; in soups or stews; with beans in chili; or with meat as a stuffing for grape leaves. Or try tossing cooked and chilled roasted buckwheat groats with chickpeas, tomatoes, cucumber slices, and feta cheese along with a mint-flavored oil and vinegar dressing for a tasty light meal.
Whole groats are milled into the size of sesame seeds to make cream of buckwheat cereal. And buckwheat flour comes in a light variety, which looks almost like white flour, and a whole type that contains very finely milled particles of buckwheat hulls that provide more fiber. Both products contain 100% buckwheat. “Buckwheat flour is good for making flatbreads like pancakes or crepes,” says Harriman, “because it’s gluten-free.”