Friday 20 April 2018

Forget brown rice, it's all about 'super' grains now

Millet muffins, freekeh and farro are on menu for Gwyneth & Co

Grain store: Rachel Firth, general manager of Fallon & Byrne with a selection of grains.
Grain store: Rachel Firth, general manager of Fallon & Byrne with a selection of grains.
Eva Mendes is a big fan of amaranth

Chrissie Russell

From Gwyneth Paltrow and her millet muffins to Jennifer Aniston and her "so delicious" quinoa salads – celebrity endorsements are sowing the seeds of a grain revival.

But forget bog-standard brown rice or bland oatmeal, it's fancy cereals like freekeh, farro and amaranth that the really fashionable foodies are talking about.

These exotic sounding supergrains have been on the menu in some far-flung spots for thousands of years.

Amaranth for example, which can be eaten a bit like popped corn, has been a staple in the diet of Mexican tribes for over eight thousand years.

But it's only now, thanks to actress Eva Mendes professing her love for the protein-packed grain, that western shoppers are really sitting up and paying attention.

"Grains are definitely having a bit of a moment," agrees Rachel Firth, general manager of Fallon & Byrne, Dublin. "In the past the grain section used to be mostly the domain of the veggies but now it's something everyone's interested in."

Sales of grains, as part of the store's grains, beans and rices section, have risen 23pc year-on-year, an increase Firth describes as "a significant jump".

"They're high protein which is a great plus – especially with high-protein diets being so popular at the moment, they're also a great filler and can take a lot of flavour with the addition of herbs and spices."

Increased international travel, which has helped us develop palates hungry for new flavours, has also helped boost the appeal of grains. We are no longer a nation reared on spuds, meat and two veg and we're keen to get creative in the kitchen.

"Food often goes through trends and we're currently seeing a real interest in Middle-Eastern cuisine," says Firth. "An interest in chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi, who is huge in London right now, has also been picked up over here and had a major impact on grains' popularity."

Freekeh (pronounced free-ka), made from young green durum wheat, is a particular favourite in Ottolenghi's recipe books.

"It's also growing in popularity as the socially conscious alternative to quinoa," says Firth. "In recent years, worldwide demand for quinoa has grown so much that the local Bolivian people who have farmed it and eaten it for years can no longer afford to buy it, so many people uncomfortable with this are turning to freekeh instead."

That said, quinoa remains a favourite among Irish shoppers, with couscous, pearl barley and spelt also popular at the checkout.

In recent years the green banner on various products imploring us to eat more healthy wholegrains has become a familiar sight.

These unrefined seeds are associated with being full of fibre, antioxidants, minerals and proteins.

But broadening our grain repertoire has added benefits.

'Wholegrain products are certainly healthier than their white counterparts," explains nutritionist Elsa Jones (elsajonesnutrition.ie). "But many people interpret this as a licence to eat as many wheat products as they like when really the advice should be to eat a wider variety of whole grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, millet and rye."

The current crop of 'supergrains' have the edge on many of the old wheat favourites. Amaranth has three times the fibre content of wheat, farro is low in gluten and quinoa is wheat- and gluten free.

"Many people have difficulty digesting wheat," says Jones. "Gluten-free grains like buckwheat, rice, quinoa and millet are on the whole more easily digested and more nutritious."

But while Taylor Swift is happy to extol the delights of her buckwheat pancakes, not everyone is convinced by the wholegrain love-in.

Conor Murphy managing director of Nurish (nurish.ie) writes a healthy-eating food blog and disagrees that wholegrains constitute an essential part of the diet

"Wholegrains have a marginally lower GI than refined grains but it's still much higher than unprocessed fruits and vegetables and there are many other natural sources of fibre," he explains.

According to Murphy, the desire to market lucrative wholegrains as an essential source of nutrients far outweighs the benefits of the grains. He says: "An avocado has far more fibre than a slice of wholegrain bread but natural foods just don't get marketed in the same way.

"There would never be a marketing campaign for an individual fruit or vegetable because there's not the same money to be made."

Overall Murphy reckons we'd be better off eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables than worrying about stocking up on fancy wholegrains. This is a view also supported by many proponents of the Paleo or 'Caveman' diet.

"Consuming a variety of vegetables and fruit in your diet is more advantageous for the body in terms of vitamins and minerals," says Murphy.

"If you can process gluten and grains without any digestive issues, then consuming wholegrains is not likely to cause you any harm. However, it's not going to do you a lot of good, and they are certainly not the miraculous superfood that some people think they are."

Irish Independent

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