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Grains, Grains, Gluten-Free?



If you’re on a gluten-free diet you probably know that wheat, rye and barley are the forbidden grains. But go to your local natural foods market  . . . and total confusion. FDA labeling requires the clear statement of wheat as an ingredient but gluten comes in many forms. What about spelt, kamut and triticale? Is buckwheat gluten-free? What the heck are ancient grains? Are oats gluten-free?I’ll try to clear up all this confusion by listing many of these mysterious grains with a little information about each one.


Which grains have gluten?

  • Wheat – For many years, with mass production and corporate agriculture, one type of wheat has come to dominate the market. This variety of wheat was chosen due to its shorter maturation time and its higher gluten content. But more recently there has been a trend back to “ancient grains.” Many are simply different varieties of wheat and others are unrelated to wheat. Some are gluten-free and some are not.

  • Barley – A grain used in beer and malt beverages. Also found in malt vinegar, “malt flavoring” and other additives.

  • Bulgur Wheat – a cracked wheat you’ll see in tabouli.

  • Durum Wheat – A high protein wheat mostly used to make semolina flour which is used in pasta.

  • Einkorn – An ancient form of wheat believed to be the earliest cultivated variety of wheat.

  • Farro – A species of wheat.

  • Kamut – An ancient grain found in 3000 year old Egyptian tombs. It is believed to be related to durum wheat and is also used in breads.

  • Rye – Rye has a lower gluten content and is sometimes tolerated by those with mild gluten sensitivity but definitely not for people with Celiac disease.

  • Spelt – An ancient form of wheat grown in Iran as early as 6000 BC. It can be substituted for modern day wheat and is used in breads.

  • Triticale – a hybrid of wheat and rye.


Which grains are gluten-free?

The following grains are all naturally gluten-free. However, if milled in the same facility as gluten-containing grains, cross-contamination can occur. To avoid this, simply look for a “gluten-free” statement or certification on the package.
  • Oats – Oats, on their own are gluten-free. However in farming, oat crops are often rotated with wheat and barley and are processed in the same mills. As a result, bits of wheat, rye or barley can cross-contaminate. Fortunately, there are now gluten-free oats that are grown in fields dedicated to gluten-free grains and are processed in gluten-free mills. When you buy oats or oat flour, be sure the package is labeled gluten-free and shows a gluten-free certification badge. This certification badge will assure you that the oats have been tested to be gluten-free. Unfortunately, some people with Celiac disease cannot tolerate even gluten-free oats. Your best bet is to follow your doctor’s instructions regarding oats.

  • Amaranth – An ancient grain used by the Aztecs.

  • Buckwheat – Despite its name, buckwheat is gluten-free (but be careful, buckwheat pancakes often have regular wheat flour too.) It is a higher protein, high fiber grain that is in a completely different family as wheat. Perhaps you’ve heard of buckwheat groats? This is buckwheat without its hull. When groats are toasted they are called kasha.

  • Millet – Millet is an ancient grain used in Asia as early as 8300 BC and was even more prevalent than rice. Its protein content is comparable to that of wheat so millet flour makes a nice substitute in gluten-free breads. Great in gluten-free pizza crust.

  • Quinoa – An ancient grain used by the Incas. The best thing about quinoa is that it is a complete protein meaning that it contains all the essential amino acids we need. Quinoa is a great substitute in recipes that require cous cous or tabouli. It is cooked just like rice but is way easier. My favorite grain!

  • Rice – Completely gluten-free whether it’s brown, white, basmati, jasmine or arborio rice! Brown rice flour combined with some starches makes a great all-round substitution for wheat flour.

  • Sorghum – Sorghum is used widely in Africa and dates back to ancient Egypt. It has a nice neutral flavor so sorghum flour can work well in cakes and other baked goods. You’ll see many gluten-free beers made with sorghum.

  • Teff – An ancient grain believed to have originated in Ethiopia. It is higher in protein and fiber and teff flour is wonderful for gluten-free breads.

I hope this will help you feel more confident when making a choice in the market. Don’t be afraid to experiment with some of these unfamiliar grains. You might be pleasantly surprised.