October 2014 Issue

Gluten-Free Whole Grains — Choosing the Best Options While on a Gluten-Free Diet
By Judith C. Thalheimer, RD, LDN
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 16 No. 10 P. 18

“Make half your grains whole.” That advice from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans means striving for at least 3 oz of whole grain foods per day. However, fewer than 5% of Americans achieve that goal.1 People whose health depends on avoiding gluten face an even greater challenge. Whole wheat, rye, and barley are off the menu, limiting the number of nutrient-rich whole grains available to them. Whole grains are packed with fiber and other nutrients that help meet dietary needs, so fitting them into a gluten-free meal plan is important to ensure balanced nutrition.1

Beyond Fiber
The protective outer bran that whole grains have isn’t only rich in fiber but contains antioxidants, iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, B vitamins, and phytonutrients. The plant-embryo germ has unsaturated fats, B vitamins, vitamin E and other antioxidants, and phytonutrients. The third part of any whole grain, the starchy endosperm, is mostly carbohydrate, with some protein and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.2 Research shows that whole grain intake may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, is associated with lower body weight, and is linked with a reduced incidence of type 2 diabetes.1

“Fortunately, plenty of whole grains are naturally gluten-free,” says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways and the Whole Grains Council. “In fact, of the 14 grains commonly eaten in the American food supply, only four of them [wheat, rye, barley, and the wheat/rye hybrid triticale] have gluten.” According to Harriman, brown rice, corn, and uncontaminated oats are commonly eaten gluten-free whole grains, but quinoa and wild rice also are available and becoming more widely accepted. Lesser-known grains such as amaranth, buckwheat, millet, sorghum, and teff may be harder to find, but specialty stores and mail-order services can help make them a delicious and nutritious addition to any diet. In fact, some of these less-common grains have unexpected nutritional properties. “Quinoa is one of the most complete proteins in the plant world,” she says. “You rarely get balanced amino acids like that. Likewise, we don’t think of grains as being calcium sources, but teff almost reaches the ‘good source of calcium’ level, and it has more than 200% of the Daily Value of manganese, which helps us handle oxidative stress.”

The Processed Foods Pitfall
When considering the nutritional needs of individuals who must eat gluten-free, it’s important to understand the impact of processed foods on the American diet. When the bran and germ of wheat are removed to make refined wheat flour, about 66% of the iron and 41% of the folic acid are lost, along with large percentages of other key nutrients.3 Worldwide, people who consume large amounts of refined flour suffer from iron and folic acid deficiencies. Government-mandated enrichment of refined flour (the addition of iron and the B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid) plays a key role in preventing these insufficiencies.1,4 People who can’t eat wheat flour and don’t replace processed wheat foods with similarly enriched or whole grain alternatives could be at risk of nutrient deficiencies.

“People who must avoid gluten are at risk for getting less nutrients in their diet because gluten-free grains are not usually fortified or enriched the way wheat products are,” explains Marlisa Brown, MS, RD, CDE, CDN, president of Total Wellness and author of Gluten-Free Hassle Free and Easy Gluten-Free. Since the iron, folic acid, and other B vitamins added to enrich refined wheat flour don’t have to be listed on the label, the gluten-free consumer may not be aware they’re missing anything. “People who need to follow a gluten-free diet are often looking for familiar foods to replace the wheat-based products they’re used to eating,” Brown says. “If you’re used to buying saltines and switch to gluten-free saltines, you’d think you’re getting the same nutrients, but this isn’t always the case. In general, many of the gluten-free products that are widely available are usually refined, processed, or they just have more starch than grain as the base of the product. Rice flour or starches like tapioca or potato starch simply don’t have the fiber and nutrients of whole grains.”

Incorporating Whole Grains
To avoid this nutritionally costly pitfall, consumers can look for gluten-free products labeled as enriched, choose foods made with gluten-free whole grains or whole grain flours, and add gluten-free whole grains to their meals when cooking at home. “Gluten-free consumers should make a conscious effort to include whole grains and whole grain products in their diet,” Brown says. “If you buy products that have more whole grains, you’re getting foods naturally higher in B vitamins and fiber, so you’re getting a better shot at a more balanced diet.”

For those who like the convenience of prepared foods, she recommends choosing multigrain gluten-free foods such as a quinoa-rice-corn blend pasta or crackers and breads made with buckwheat or sorghum. Adding ground flax or chia seeds to commercial gluten-free cake or pancake mixes will increase the fiber and nutrients. For those baking at home, Brown recommends replacing one-third of the gluten-free all-purpose flour in the recipe with ground buckwheat, amaranth, or millet. “Amaranth and millet are generally very light, so they can be added to a gluten-free blend for baking to provide extra nutrients without weighing down the end result,” she says. Harriman uses sorghum flour in her cookies and pancakes. “Sorghum has such a wonderful, neutral flavor, and my family loves it,” she says.

Brown and Harriman agree that cooking with whole, intact grains is the best way to get all the nutritional value the grains have to offer, and it isn’t something to fear. “Almost all grains can be cooked and eaten the same way,” Harriman explains. According to the Whole Grains Council, cooking most grains is very similar to cooking rice. Put the dry grain in a pan with water or broth, bring it to a boil, and then simmer until the liquid is absorbed. If the grain isn’t tender enough, add more liquid and continue cooking. If it’s done before the liquid is absorbed, pour off the excess.5

For people looking to try different grains, Harriman recommends cooking new grains in familiar ways. “If you have a favorite rice dish, try cooking the same dish using a different grain.”

Or eat less familiar grains with something more familiar. “Throw quinoa into rice,” Brown says, “or toss whole amaranth into soup. Amaranth is so tiny it almost dissolves, giving the soup a rich, creamy texture.”

Gluten-free or not, individuals should aim to replace refined-grain foods with nutrient-dense whole grain foods.1 For clients who must follow a gluten-free diet, dietitians can be a valuable source of information on which grains are safe to eat, how to cook with them, and how to choose or alter processed foods to boost their nutrient profile.

— Judith C. Thalheimer, RD, LDN, is a freelance nutrition writer, a community educator, and the principle of JTRD Nutrition Education Services.

1. US Department of Agriculture, US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th ed. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 2010.

2. Whole grain fact sheet. European Food Information Council website. http://www.eufic.org/article/en/expid/Whole-grain-Fact-Sheet. Updated April 8, 2014. Accessed August 3, 2014.

3. Nutrients in wheat flour: whole, refined and enriched. Whole Grains Council website. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/files/backup_migrate/WGvsEnriched2011.pdf. Updated 2011. Accessed August 2, 2014.

4. Nystrom JL, Sarkar AK, Maberly GF. 17.2: Enriching Flour, Enriching Lives: The Flour Fortification Initiative. http://www.muehlenchemie.de/downloads-future-of-flour/FoF_Kap_17-2.pdf. 2006.

5. Cooking whole grains. Whole Grains Council website. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/recipes/cooking-whole-grains. Accessed July 30, 2014.

Cooking Gluten-Free Whole Grains

To 1 cup of this gluten-free grain:

Add this much water or broth:

Bring to a boil, then simmer for:


2 cups

15 to 20 minutes


2 cups

20 minutes

Cornmeal (polenta)

4 cups

25 to 30 minutes

Millet, hulled

2½ cups

25 to 35 minutes

Oats*, steel cut

4 cups

30 minutes


2 cups

12 to 15 minutes

Rice, brown

2½ cups

25 to 45 minutes


4 cups

Soak overnight, then cook 45 to 60 minutes


3 cups

20 minutes

Wild rice

3 cups

45 to 55 minutes

*Oats are inherently gluten-free, but they’re frequently contaminated with wheat during growing or processing.
— Adapted from Gluten Free Whole Grains on the Whole Grains Council website at http://wholegrainscouncil.org/recipes/cooking-whole-grains and Maskal Teff: Ancient Grain of Ethiopia at http://www.teffco.com


Cranberry-Quinoa Salad

This tasty salad is great as a side or tossed with slices of grilled chicken as an entrée.

Serves 6

1 cup whole quinoa, rinsed 2 to 3 times
2 cups gluten-free chicken or vegetable broth
2 tsp olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1/2 cup frozen peas, defrosted and drained
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup walnuts, chopped
2 T fresh parsley, roughly chopped

1. Cook quinoa in gluten-free broth for 15 to 20 minutes, or until done. In a separate skillet, heat oil, and then add onion; cook until soft.

2. Add cooked onions, peas, dried cranberries, walnuts, and parsley to cooked quinoa. The dish can be served hot or cold.
Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 197; Fat: 6.6 g; Sat fat: 0 g; Sodium: 166 mg; Carbohydrate: 29 g; Protein: 6.6 g; Dietary fiber: 4.2 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg