Buckwheat Basics?

What exactly is buckwheat? Is it actually a type of wheat? How does it compare health-wise to other ancient grains such as spelt? Are there any advantages or disadvantages to adding this grain to the diet?

– June 7, 2002

Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) looks like a grain and tastes like a grain but isn’t one. Instead, it is a relative of rhubarb, and because it is gluten free, it is an ideal food for those allergic to the gluten in wheat and other true grains.

Buckwheat is used to make flour for pancakes, pasta, bread and Japanese soba noodles. The de-hulled seeds (groats) can be ground into grits and roasted to make kasha, served as a starchy side dish by people of various ethnic backgrounds, especially Russians and eastern Europeans.

Nutritionally, buckwheat provides vitamins B1 and B2, the minerals potassium, magnesium, phosphate and iron (buckwheat contains more iron than cereal grains), and it has nearly twice the amount of the amino acid lysine found in rice. Buckwheat bran (farinetta) contains rutin, a flavonoid known to reduce cholesterol, lower blood pressure and maintain the strength and flexibility of capillaries. A recently discovered compound in buckwheat called fagopyritol seems to have potential to help manage type 2 diabetes.

A 1995 study from the Johns Hopkins Medical Institute showed that eating 30 grams of buckwheat daily can lower blood pressure. And because buckwheat grain is digested more slowly than other carbohydrates it can leave you feeling fuller longer and improve glucose tolerance among the carbohydrate sensitive.

Unlike buckwheat, spelt (Triticum spelta) is a true grain with a flavorful nutty taste. It is an ancestor of wheat, which means that it does contain gluten and is off-limits to those on gluten-free diets. It is high in fiber and B-complex vitamins, and has 10 to 25 percent more protein than most varieties of commercial wheat. Spelt is used to make cereals, pastas, crackers, baked goods, and beer.

Both spelt and buckwheat are good nutritional bargains. Try them both – you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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