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Focus on Buckwheat
Wheat, wheat and more wheat!

I often wonder exactly how many of us would benefit in terms of optimising our health from reducing the amount of wheat in our diets.  It is such an overused grain in our modern-day diet so it is not difficult to be eating it all day long –  toast and weetabix or shreddies for breakfast; sandwich or pies for lunch; spaghetti, pasta or pizza for evening meal, with snacks of biscuits or cakes to keep us going between meals - and that’s before you factor in the hidden sources of wheat, often used as binders and fillers in sauces and ready-made meals.

There are, nevertheless, many grains and seeds which can be used as an alternative to wheat.  Apart from adding interest to often limited diets, the inclusion of a greater variety of these nutrient-rich foods in our diets may well provide a much wider range of raw materials to help support good health.  

I have, however, found that many people know little about these tasty alternatives so,  I thought it would be useful to have a look at one of the possible candidates - buckwheat.

Despite its name, buckwheat is not a cereal like wheat, rye or barley but is, in fact, botanically very different, being a close relative of the rhubarb.  Its name is an anglicised version of the Dutch for beech since its seeds resemble beech seeds.  Buckwheat was domesticated around 6,000 years ago, so is one of the oldest human agricultural products. It is a fast growing plant cropping in six weeks and is extensively grown as an alternative to wheat and rice in Russia and China, who are the world’s largest producers. 

The buckwheat seed is called an “achene” and is biologically similar to the sunflower seed with a single seed in a hard, brown outer “hull” and a white starchy endosperm which is milled to produce the flour.  Inclusion of the hull produces a darker flour or bran which is high in insoluble fibre and protein.  The French call this “blé noir” (black wheat) or sarasin.

Buckwheat has a slightly nutty texture with a mildly aromatic flavour that complements vegetables well.  It is extensively used to produce noodles: koba in Japan, or guksu or pizzoccheri in Italy.  However, making noodles without gluten is a considerable skill and these are traditionally hand-made.  The hulled seeds or groats are widely used, and when toasted are a traditional peasant porridge in Russia, Ukraine and Poland.  The groats can also be sprouted, like bamboo shoots, and eaten raw or cooked. Buckwheat flour can be used to make light, foamy, savoury pancakes with an earthy, mushroom flavour.  These are called blinis in Russia, galettes in France or boûkettes in Belgium.  

Although buckwheat flour and groats are not widely available in supermarkets, they are quite easily sourced through most health-foods shops. Buckwheat honey, tea and even beer are available, though you may need to search further afield for these.

On a more practical note, having tracked down some buckwheat in a local healthfood store, I find that people often don’t know what to do with it.   For recipes, try simply googling buckwheat, although I have found that the BBC recipe website is an excellent starting point with 12 tasty buckwheat recipe ideas!

From a nutritional point of view, buckwheat offers a nutritious alternative to gluten-containing grains.  It is a useful alternative to wheat or rye in people who suffer from wheat sensitivity, or gluten intolerance and is considered a good choice for coeliac sufferers.   It is also a useful source of protein in vegetarians and vegan diets. 

Even if you don’t have any problems with wheat or gluten, buckwheat offers a range of new flavours and textures to broaden your diet.  However, as with any new food do be aware of the possibility of an allergic reaction:

Buckwheat, like other nuts and seeds, can produce an anaphylactic reaction in people with nut or seed allergies, so if you are allergic to any nuts or seeds, buckwheat is best avoided.

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