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Foods

Wheat

Why Eat It
Varieties
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

As the most important cereal crop in the world, wheat--mainly in the form of bread and noodles--nourishes more people than any other grain. Unlike many other grains, such as oats, corn, sorghum, and millet, wheat is not typically used as animal feed but is processed directly into human food (although wheat bran and germ, the nutrient-dense by-products of flour refining, are given to livestock). The bulk of the wheat grown is milled into flour--usually white flour. But there are forms of wheat, with their bran and germ intact, that can be eaten as a main or side dish. Whole wheat is a highly nutritious food, offering a good supply of protein, B vitamins, and minerals, including iron, magnesium, and manganese.

Wheat is one of the oldest cultivated grains. Probably descended from a wild grass, and first grown in western Asia 6,000 years ago, it was milled into flour for bread in ancient Egypt and was the grain of choice during the Roman Empire. Wheat fell behind barley and rye as a staple grain in Europe for hundreds of years, but it reemerged as the preeminent grain in the 19th century. It was brought to the New World by European settlers in the 1700s. By the mid-19th century wheat farming was becoming well established in what would later be called the "Wheat Belt."

Today, the United States ranks among the top five wheat-growing nations in the world, exporting one-half of its annual wheat crop to other nations.

Varieties

The thousands of known varieties of wheat all fall into one of six classes, determined by the planting season, hardness of the grain, and the color of the kernel. Hard Red Winter, Hard Red Spring, Soft Red Winter, Hard White, Soft White, and Durum wheat are the major classes. Winter wheats are planted in the fall; they lie dormant during the winter, revive to grow again in the spring, and are harvested early in the summer. Spring wheats are planted in the spring and harvested late in the summer.

The hard wheats have a higher protein-to-starch ratio than the soft wheats. Durum, the hardest wheat of all, is processed into semolina and used to make pasta. Hard Red Winter and Hard Red Spring wheats are milled into bread flour and all-purpose flour, as are Hard White wheats. Soft Red Winter and Soft White wheats produce flours that are well suited for making cakes, crackers, cookies, and pastries. Any of these wheats (except durum) may be combined in the whole-wheat products listed below.

Bulgur: A processed form of cracked wheat (but with a more pronounced flavor), bulgur is produced by a method similar to that used for converted rice: The whole-wheat kernels are steam cooked and dried, then the grain is cracked into three different granulations. Traditionally, the coarsest grain is used for pilaf; the medium for cereal; and the finest, for tabbouleh. Bulgur requires less cooking time than cracked wheat. It can also be "cooked" by soaking, without heat.

Cracked wheat: This product is made from wheat berries that have been ground into coarse, medium, and fine granulations for faster cooking. Cracked wheat has an agreeably wheaty flavor and can replace rice or other grains in most recipes; it cooks in about 15 minutes and retains a slight crunchiness afterward. You can offer it as a breakfast cereal, mix it into baked goods, or substitute it for bulgur in tabbouleh--a Middle Eastern cold grain salad--and other main dishes.

It's possible to make cracked wheat at home by processing wheat berries in a heavy-duty blender. Process 2 cups of wheat at a time on high speed for about four minutes.

Farina: Also sold as Cream of Wheat, farina is made from the endosperm of the grain, which is milled to a fine granular consistency and then sifted. Although the bran and most of the germ are removed, this cereal is sometimes enriched with B vitamins and iron. Farina is most often served as a breakfast cereal, but can also be cooked like polenta.

Rolled wheat flakes: These are whole wheat berries that have been flattened between rollers and are not to be confused with ready-to-eat wheat-flake breakfast cereals. Rolled wheat flakes resemble rolled oats, but are thicker and firmer; you can add them to baked goods or cook them as hot cereal.

Wheat berries: Also called groats, these are whole wheat kernels that have not been milled, polished, or heat treated. Wheat berries are brown and nearly round in appearance; they take over an hour to cook, but the time can be reduced if they are presoaked. Wheat berries have a robust, nutlike flavor that goes well with other hearty foods. They can be used for grain-based main dishes, served as a side dish, or added to soups and yeast-bread doughs.

Wheatena: This is the trade name for a very finely cracked wheat product sold for use as a hot cereal. It has a pleasantly nutlike flavor and is among the most nutritious of hot cereals.

Wheat germ: Wheat germ contains a fair amount of polyunsaturated fat, deriving 25% of its calories from fat. Wheat germ is a good source of thiamin, riblflavin, vitamin B6, vitamin E, folate, iron, magnesium, selenium, and zinc. One-quarter cup supplies 8 grams of protein and almost 4 grams of dietary fiber. Defatted wheat germ is available, but it's lower in vitamin E (vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamine); unlike regular wheat germ, it does not need to be stored in the refrigerator.

Wheat bran: Wheat bran is also a nutritional storehouse; it offers a considerable amount of dietary fiber, along with magnesium and selenium. One-quarter cup contains 2 grams of protein and less than a gram of fat.

Preparation

Packaged whole wheat products do not require rinsing, but those bought in bulk should be picked over and washed to remove dust or debris before cooking.

Wheat berries and cracked wheat are most frequently cooked by simmering, but they can also be baked in casseroles. For 1/2 cup raw wheat berries, use 1 1/2 cups liquid and cook one hour 10 minutes. For 1/2 cup raw cracked wheat, use 1 cup liquid and cook 15 minutes (perhaps less for finer granulations).

Sprouting: Whole-wheat berries can be sprouted; use them like bean sprouts, or allow them to grow longer and eat the resulting wheat grass.

Nutrition Chart

Wheat Berries/1/3 cup uncooked

209
Total fat (g)
1
Saturated fat (g)
0.2
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.4
Dietary fiber (g)
7.8
8
Carbohydrate (g)
46
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
1
Thiamin (mg)
0.2
Niacin (mg)
3.5
Magnesium (mg)
81
Manganese (mg)
2.6
Phosphorus (mg)
184
Selenium (mcg)
45

Toasted Wheat Germ/1/4 cup

108
Total fat (g)
3
Saturated fat (g)
0.5
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.4
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
1.9
Dietary fiber (g)
3.6
8
Carbohydrate (g)
14
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
1
Thiamin (mg)
0.5
Riboflavin (mg)
0.2
Vitamin B6 (mg)
0.3
Vitamin E (mg)
5.1
Folate (mcg)
99
Iron (mg)
2.6
Magnesium (mg)
90
Manganese (mg)
5.7
Phosphorus (mg)
324
Selenium (mcg)
18
Zinc (cg)
4.7

Wheat Bran/1/4 cup

31
Total fat (g)
0.6
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.3
Dietary fiber (g)
6.2
2
Carbohydrate (g)
9
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
0
Magnesium (mg)
89
Manganese (mg)
1.7
Phosphorus (mg)
147
Selenium (mcg)
11


Date Published: 04/21/2005
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