Foods in the Grass Family – Wheat, Corn, Sugar, and Others

by Penny Hammond on October 31, 2009

in Foods,Plant Foods

Cows, sheep, and related animals are designed to eat grass. The enzymes, acids and microbes in their four stomachs can digest the cellulose in the green stuff that makes up your lawn. We humans, on the other hand, can’t eat regular grass. However, we can eat parts of certain foods in the grass family. We eat the seeds, or grain, of some members of this family – wheat, corn/maize, rice, oats, rye, millet, teff, wild rice, and others. They are also known as cereals; hundreds of years ago in the UK, all cereals were referred to as “corn” and the name ended up sticking with a new grain that came from the new world. Note that quinoa and buckwheat aren’t officially cereal grains – they’re from other families. The stalks of other members of the grass family are used – sugar, bamboo, and lemongrass.

Mature grains contain all the elements needed for a new plant to grow. The germ (as in wheatgerm, not as in germs that make you sick) is the lifesource of the plant. It contains vitamins and minerals and fat – the central nourishment of the seed. The main part of the seed, the endosperm, is the carbohydrate source that gives it the energy to grow. The bran or outer shell, also known as the husk, protects the seed and is mainly fiber. We don’t eat these seeds raw, because for humans they’re generally indigestible when raw. We usually eat them cooked, or sprouted.

The ancestors of wheat, einkorn and emmer, were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. Maize, or corn, was developed from wild grasses in Mexico. Rice originated in Asia. These important grains were brought into agriculture around 10,000 years ago, independently from each other. Grains were probably sometimes eaten in small amounts before the beginnings of agriculture – archaeologists recently discovered what they believe are 11,000 year old granaries at Dhra in Jordan. In parts of Africa, wild grasses are still collected for food, especially in times of scarcity. The seeds may have been first recognized as foods after wildfires – when toasted they smell sweet. Think about it – when people decide to settle down to farm, they’re unlikely to suddenly decide to grow something they’ve never eaten before! The original plants probably had very small grains, and were selectively bred for larger seeds. They’re used whole (eg rice), or broken up (eg. bulgur wheat), or milled to make flour. They may also be used to make “milks” such as oat milk, and they can be fermented to make alcoholic drinks including bourbon and beer. As we moved from being hunter-gatherers to farmers, these little-used seeds became a major food source, as they can be stored for a long time and used in times of need, and they’re a pretty easy way to get a lot of energy.

As a prominent source of carbohydrates, grains are worshipped and demonized. They used to be literally worshipped – Demeter was the ancient Greek goddess of grains, fertility and agriculture. Nowadays, many health specialists strongly recommend whole grains. Refined grains have been used for thousands of years – in Roman times the physician Galen describes three types of bread: bread made with refined flour (which probably still contained the germ – he calls this “pure” bread), wholegrain bread, and bread made mainly from bran, which tends to pass through you rather quickly. Whole grains come in and out of fashion – they were popular among Kellogg, Post, and other people looking for healthy foods in the late 19th Century. They went out of fashion during the highly-processed 1950s, then back in the 1970s and again in the current years. There were also low-carb trends in the 1970s and again in recent years, when grains including whole grains were avoided by large numbers of people in the West.

Foods made with refined grains (white wheat flour, rice flour, etc) can be addictive for some people. There are various theories about why this should be the case. One theory is that some of the grain proteins, including gluten proteins in wheat, break down into smaller proteins that include opioids, and these make us want more of the same. Of course, alcohols made with grains are also addictive for many people.

About 1 in 111 people in the West have celiac disease – an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack itself when the trigger foods in the wheat family are eaten. These foods include wheat (including couscous, semolina and bulgur), rye, barley (including malt), spelt, kamut, triticale, and einkorn. Some people are also affected by oats. Other people are gluten intolerant – they have other reactions to the gluten in these foods that won’t cause their bodies to attack themselves, but may cause unpleasant symptoms. These may include exhaustion, depression, headaches, and eczema. Note that any food that is eaten constantly, several times a day, may trigger a sensitivity. People in countries that eat a lot of wheat are more likely to become sensitized to wheat when they have cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and pasta for dinner. People in rice-eating countries may become sensitive to rice, for the same reasons.

People with certain types of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may be intolerant of whole grains – it appears that the insoluble fibers irritate their bowel lining.

Other foods in the grass family are also eaten. The major one is sugar. Sugar cane is grown for the sugary juice in the stems of the grass, which grows up to 19ft/6m tall and 2″/5cm diameter – imagine that when you’re mowing your lawn! White sugar, brown sugar, sugar syrup, molasses, rum and cachaca are all from this grass. Funnily enough, sugar is also addictive for some people.

Bamboo is another huge grass with a thick stem. The tender inner part of the stem of some species of bamboo is used for food in east and southeast Asia.

Lemongrass is used as a flavoring in southeast Asian cooking – this is one where the name of the food gives it away as being part of the family!

What are your food choices when it comes to foods in the grass family?

Resources:
Food Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide Food Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide – Lots of historical and current information on food plant usage, and photos of the plants and the parts used for food.
Dangerous Grains: Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous To Your Health Dangerous Grains: Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous To Your Health – Extremely enthusiastic explanation of why wheat and other cereal grains may be bad for you.
Farming in Prehistory: From Hunter-Gatherer to Food-Producer – Explanation of how humans moved from hunting/gathering to horticulture to agriculture.
Galen: On the Properties of Foodstuffs Galen: On the Properties of Foodstuffs – This Roman doctor/nutritionist’s rules for eating and health were used for nearly 2,000 years.
Food Addiction: The Body Knows: Revised & Expanded Edition Food Addiction: The Body Knows: Revised & Expanded Edition – What is food addiction, addictive foods, and managing your addiction.
Celiac Disease (Revised and Updated Edition): A Hidden Epidemic Celiac Disease (Revised and Updated Edition): A Hidden Epidemic – Scientific explanation of celiac disease and how to manage it, by the Director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University.
Irritable Bowel Solutions: The Essential Guide to Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Its Causes and Treatments – Irritable Bowel Solutions: The Essential Guide to Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Its Causes and Treatments – Breakdown of different types of IBS by leading UK authority on food intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome.

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