What are grains?

A grain is the “fruit” of a cereal grass. Cereal crops are grown in large quantities and in their natural, minimally processed form, are rich in vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, oils and protein. Often confused for cereal grains, buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth are actually the seeds of plants but because their culinary uses are similar, we’ve included them in our selection.


Discover more nutrition content in our health hub, and read up on the top healthiest cereals, healthiest breads and healthiest cooking oils.

Pea, feta and pearl barley stew in two blue bowls

What are the top healthiest grains?

1. Amaranth

Amaranth is a protein-rich, gluten-free seed, whose parent plant is a distant relative to chard and spinach. Mild, nutty and malty in taste, amaranth is available as flour and flakes. It is a good source of minerals as well as vitamins A and C.

Try our amaranth porridge with green tea & ginger compote.

2. Barley

Pearl barley is the most commonly available variety. It's not a wholegrain, so although it is a good source of some nutrients, it’s not as beneficial as pot barley, which has only the outer hull of the grain removed during processing.

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Barley is a source of soluble fibre called beta-glucan, which appears to influence energy metabolism by indirectly suppressing appetite and improving insulin sensitivity. Like wheat, barley contains gluten and as such not suitable for those with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.

Be inspired by our pea, feta & pearl barley stew and steak with roasted pepper & pearl barley salad.

3. Buckwheat

Buckwheat has an enviable antioxidant profile, better than that of many cereal grains, including oats and wheat. As well as containing plant compounds such as rutin, it's one of the richest food sources of d-chiro inositol, which may help manage blood sugar levels. Despite its name, buckwheat is actually a seed rather than a grain, and as such is naturally gluten free. Discover our how to cook buckwheat guide.

Discover the health benefits of buckwheat.

Try buckwheat galettes, poppy seed buckwheat porridge and lamb with buckwheat noodles & tomato dressing.

4. Corn

Also known as maize, corn is one of the most popular cereals consumed globally. As well as being a source of vitamins, minerals and fibre, corn provides plant compounds including the carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin. In fact, corn provides more of these protective carotenoids than most other cereal grains – a diet rich in these may reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and obesity and protect against vision loss.

Enjoy corn in our almond, raisin & popcorn trail mix and smoky corn & avocado salsa.

5. Emmer

One of the oldest domesticated crops, emmer is a hybrid of einkorn and a species of wild grass. It is a type of wheat grain and contains gluten, making it unsuitable for those with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. Like einkorn, emmer is richer in protein, fibre and antioxidant compounds than its modern wheat counterpart.

Use emmer in soups, stews, pilafs or as an alternative grain in porridge.

6. Einkorn

An ancient wheat grain, einkorn is the only wheat type not to be hybridised. Although lower in dietary fibre, einkorn is rich in protein, fats – mostly unsaturated fatty acids as well as minerals, including zinc and iron. Being a wheat grain, it contains gluten, although at lower levels, but should still be avoided by those with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.

Einkorn can be milled to a flour and used to bake cakes, muffins and cookies.

7. Farro

An ancient form of the wheat grain, farro is an umbrella term used to cover three different wheat varieties – emmer, einkorn and spelt. These older types of wheat have a richer protein content making them a useful inclusion for those following a plant-based diet.

Enjoy farro salad with roasted carrots & feta and Italian-style borlotti bean, pumpkin & farro soup.

8. Freekeh

Freekeh is a green grain made from young durum wheat, it is roasted or smoked then polished to remove its shell. The grain is then cracked to varying degrees of coarseness. An excellent addition to soups, stews, salads and pilafs, freekeh can be cooked like rice or barley.

Wholegrain freekeh is good for those following a low-GI diet. It contains higher levels of dietary fibre and protein than regular wheat and is a source of calcium, potassium, iron and zinc. Freekeh is also a useful source of the carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, which play an important role in maintaining eye health and vision.

Serve up Moroccan-style freekeh traybake or leek & freekeh pilaf with feta & toasted pine nuts.

9. Khorasan wheat

Khorasan wheat is an ancient variety of wheat, the kernel of which is twice the size of regular wheat and has a richer, creamier and nuttier flavour. Produced and sold under the trademarked Kamut® brand, the grain is organically grown. It is available in a variety of forms including whole grain, green Kamut, flour, couscous and bulgur wheat.

Although Khorasan wheat is not gluten free, many people claim to find it easier to digest. It is higher in protein than wheat and provides more selenium, magnesium and zinc. One small study found that swapping semi whole-grain wheat for Khorasan wheat may help reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome in healthy individuals.

Studio, Canihua, Warenkunde, Pseudogetreide

10. Kaniwa

Smaller and darker than quinoa, this seed is from the same family of flowering plant. Although less popular and less well studied, we do know that kaniwa shares many of the same nutritional properties of quinoa.

It is a complete protein and a good source of iron, making it a useful inclusion for those following a plant-based diet. Like quinoa, it is rich in plant compounds called flavonoids, these include quercetin and isorhamnetin which have anti-inflammatory benefits. It is rich in dietary fibre, lignans and, like quinoa, it has a favourable fatty acid composition. Being a seed rather than a grain it is naturally gluten free.

Kaniwa can be used in place of quinoa or in combination with it, why not try kaniwa in these tasty recipes? Chicken & quinoa salad with beetroot yogurt or easy quinoa salad with roasted vegetables.

11. Millet

Although it looks like a seed, millet is a gluten-free cereal grain that boasts a high fibre, protein and protective antioxidant content. With a low glycaemic index and being rich in indigestible carbs, millet may help stabilise blood sugar levels.

Give it a go with our millet porridge with almond milk & berry compote.

12. Oats

Oats are rich in prebiotic fibres, one example being the soluble fibre, beta-glucan. Prebiotic fibres act as a fuel source for our gut microbes and in so doing stimulate their growth and activity, and enable them to crowd out less desirable, pathogenic microbes. Prebiotic fibres are important for promoting a healthy gut, maintaining proper gut function and minimising inflammation.

Find out more about the health benefits of oats and learn how to make the best porridge.

Start the day well with our raspberry kefir overnight oats, baked banana porridge or oat pancakes.

13. Quinoa

Quinoa is high in anti-inflammatory plant compounds, which makes it potentially beneficial in the prevention and treatment of disease. Quinoa contains small amounts of the heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids and when compared to common cereals, has a higher content of monounsaturated fat.

Discover the health benefits of quinoa.

We love using it to make spicy cajun chicken quinoa, quinoa chilli with avocado & coriander, and tuna, avocado & quinoa salad.

14. Rice

Rice is one of the most important dietary carbohydrates in the world, with over half the global population depending on it. Typically boiled or steamed, it can also be ground into a gluten-free flour too.

Brown rice retains the bran layer and as such contains protective compounds called flavonoids – examples of these include apigenin and quercetin. These compounds play an important role in protecting against disease.

Discover the health benefits of rice.

Put rice to good use in our spicy cauliflower & halloumi rice, prawn fried rice and Mexican-style fiesta rice.

rye sourdough bread

15. Rye

Rye is rich in lignans, which are plant compounds linked with a wide range of health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease, menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis and breast cancer. Studies confirm that bread made with 100% rye has less of a negative effect on blood sugar than the equivalent wheat bread and as a result is likely to keep you fuller for longer.

Experiment with rye with our recipe for rye sourdough bread.

16. Sorghum

Less familiar to many of us, sorghum is the fifth most produced cereal crop in the world and is gluten free. It can be cooked like rice, milled to a flour or popped like popcorn. In its wholegrain form, it’s nutrient dense, low in fat and high in fibre.

It is a better source of magnesium than wheat and is rich in plant compounds including flavonoids, phenolic acids and tannins. These compounds are known for their health benefits, which include being anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-diabetic.

17. Spelt

Spelt is an ancient member of the wheat family and an evolutionary hybrid of emmer and goat grass, it contains gluten and is not suitable for those with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. Spelt grains can be purchased whole or pearled and are available as a refined white or wholewheat flour.

Wholegrain spelt is rich in dietary fibre and may help to control blood glucose levels.

Enjoy spelt in spelt & wild mushroom risotto or Mediterranean spelt-stuffed peppers.

18. Teff

A tiny grass seed with a mild, nutty flavour, teff has much to offer nutritionally – it has a high calcium content combined with a useful contribution of other minerals, including iron. Being rich in phytochemicals and a good source of protein, studies support a potential role for teff in supporting healthy bones. Naturally gluten-free, teff’s mild flavour makes it suitable for numerous culinary uses.

19. Triticale

A cross between wheat and rye, this gluten-containing grain boasts more protein than its parents and is higher in most minerals and some vitamins. It has a lower gluten content than wheat so when used in bread-making, it's best mixed with wheat flour.

20. Wheat (Triticum)

One of the most commonly eaten cereals, wheat and its close relatives (durum, spelt, emmer, einkorn and Khorasan) are an important source of carbohydrate.

Wholegrain wheat includes all three parts of the grain – the bran, wheatgerm and endosperm. This ensures that the naturally-occurring nutrients are retained, along with the fibre. This is why wholegrain wheat is nutrient-rich and, when eaten regularly, may help protect against chronic diseases, such as heart disease and stroke, certain forms of cancer and type 2 diabetes.

In a small part of the population, gluten (the major part of wheat protein) can trigger an auto-immune condition called coeliac disease, or lead to a condition called non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.

As an ingredient wheat is extremely versatile – it comprises much of our daily bread and is available as pasta, couscous, semolina and bulgur wheat.

We love wheat in our seeded wholemeal loaf and our cheese & Marmite scones.

Sesame parsnip & wild rice tabbouleh on a pink plate

21. Wild rice

Growing in shallow fresh-water marshes, wild rice is not a rice at all but the seed of an aquatic grass. As such it is richer in protein and contains small but useful contributions of iron, potassium and selenium. With the same fibre content as brown rice, wild rice provides a valuable contribution of antioxidant compounds that appear to specifically benefit heart health.

Enjoy the nutty flavours of wild rice in our sesame parsnip & wild rice tabbouleh or mixed bean & wild rice salad.

Which is your favourite to cook with? Share your thoughts in the comments below….

Want to learn more?

Top 10 healthiest breads
Top 20 healthiest fruits
Top 10 healthiest nuts
Is bread healthy?
Gluten-free baking recipes

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition


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