New “Old” Grains: Freekeh

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Last week I wrote about some food trends to keep an eye on for the year ahead. In it, I mentioned two grains that I suspect a lot of you have little to no knowledge about.

The topic of grains and grain foods (bread, pasta, rice) is a hot one when it comes to diabetes. No doubt, many of you are suspicious (to say the least) of grains being part of a diabetes eating plan. Of course, everyone’s diabetes is different (always important to remember), and the choice to include or not include certain foods as part of your menus is an individual decision. As a dietitian, however, I believe that grains — whole grains, that is — can be part of anyone’s eating plan. Despite the anti-grain sentiment out there, grains really do have a lot of health benefits to offer. Here are a few:

• Whole grains can reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes.

• Whole-grain eaters tend to have lower BMIs (body-mass indices), lower waist-to-hip ratios, and a lower risk of obesity

• Whole grains can improve the health of your digestive tract by promoting regularity and enhancing the growth of healthful bacteria

Whole-grain foods include all three parts of the grain: the bran, germ, and endosperm. Examples include whole wheat bread, brown rice, and whole oats. Refined-carbohydrate foods, like white bread and white pasta, contain grains that have been stripped of the bran and germ layers. These foods have lost much of their nutrient and health value and, because of the refining process, tend to have more of an impact on blood glucose than unrefined carbs.

That being said, let’s delve into two ancient grains that have been making a comeback into the food industry. I’ll focus on one grain this week, and another next week.

Freekeh FAQs
Pronounced “free-kah,” this grain is actually wheat that’s been harvested when it’s young and green. The word “freekeh” is Arabic for “rubbed.” The story goes that it was “discovered” about 3000 years ago when a wheat crop was set on fire. Rather than bemoan the possible loss of a crop, the villagers made the best of a bad situation and salvaged the young wheat by rubbing off the char and cooking what was left. And freekeh was born.

How does it taste? I have not yet tried freekeh, but from what I’ve read, this grain has a grassy, smoky, nutty flavor with a chewy texture.

What are the health benefits? The term “superfood” has been overused somewhat, but freekeh may qualify as one. This grain has up to three times the fiber and protein found in brown rice, ranks low on the glycemic index, and contains resistant starch, a type of carbohydrate that, among other things, has less of an impact on blood glucose than other types of carbohydrate. Freekeh also contains lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids that may help prevent macular degeneration. And, it acts as a prebiotic, which is basically food for healthful bacteria in the gut.

How many calories and carbs does freekeh contain? A half-cup of this cooked grain has 90 calories and 18 grams of carbohydrate, along with 3 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber.

Does freekeh contain gluten? Yes. Because it’s essentially wheat, freekeh is not gluten-free.

Where do you buy freekeh? Check out local health-food stores to find freekeh. Some supermarkets may carry freekeh, as well. And you can always purchase this (and other) grains online. Freekeh Foods is a company that produces organic freekeh and sells it on their Web site.

How do you cook freekeh? Freekeh is often sold cracked, which cuts down on its cooking time (15 to 20 minutes versus 45 to 50 minutes for whole freekeh). To prepare, add 2 1/2 cups of water or low sodium broth to a saucepan and stir in 1 cup of freekeh. Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat and simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes.

How do I eat freekeh? Think of freekeh as a substitute for rice. So, any dish that uses rice can work well with freekah, such as a stir-fry, pilaf, or risotto. Do a quick Internet search and you’ll turn up plenty of freekeh recipes.

Give freekeh a try. It’s one of those “new” old grains that can add some pizazz back into your eating plan. It is a carbohydrate food, so keep an eye on your portion. And if you’ve tried freekeh, let us know how you like it!

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