Cerere, Goddess of the earth and fertility, taught the ancient Romans how to raise crops; as a sign of their gratitude they named after her that treasure called cereals.
Cereals are truly precious. Without them, human civilization itself would not be where it is today.
They are at the basis of the Mediterranean Diet, without them we would not have flour, bread, pasta, and rice. They are irreplaceable.
They are rich in starch and the whole grain kinds contain fiber. Their carbohydrates provide slow-releasing energy and, as indicated by balanced nutrition guidelines, they should provide 50-60% of daily calories.
The term cereals is used to define plants, mostly of the Gramineae family. However, they also include others, whose fruits and seeds can be ground into flour.
Let’s discover them together:
Through the milling process, the wheat or grain produces different kinds of flour, depending on how much it is refined.
The 00 type is bran-free, very fine and very white. It comes from the grinding of the internal part of the seed and for this reason, though being rich in starch and protein (12-3%), it is low in mineral salts, vitamins and fiber.
When it possesses only a small percentage of bran it is type 0. Type 1 and 2 contain more bran, starch and protein but in lower quantities than the whole grain kind which, obtained by grinding also the membranes of the external coating, contains most of the original nutrients (carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals and fibers) and it is most recommended for healthy nutrition.
Rice is the most eaten cereal in the world. Its nutritional characteristics vary if the cereal is refined or whole grain, this applies for all cereals. All rice qualities share the characteristic of containing a small percentage of fat, approx. 0.4%, and little protein (8%), but the carbohydrate content is high (80%). After it is boiled, drained rice loses plenty of nutritional properties; the carbohydrates reduce to 24% because the starch is lost in the water.
To prevent the loss of nutrients, it is necessary to cook the rice so that it absorbs all the water; this is what happens with risotto or when steam cooking the rice, without draining it. One gram of rice supplies about 3.58kcal. It is gluten free, making it suitable for celiacs, and it is easy to digest.
Spelt supplies 3.35Kcal/g of food. It contains 15% protein and 67% carbohydrates, 2.5% fat and it has high fiber content 7%.
Its nutritional characteristics have fed the populations of the Mediterranean for thousands of years and it is still used in many dishes. Among its many qualities it is that of certainly being the most eco-sustainable cereal because it does not require weed killers or chemical additives.
Together with spelt, barley was already cultivated 10,000 years ago. The pearl kind is the one most widely eaten; it can be prepared like rice.
Barley is used to make soups, but also flour and beverages, including alcoholic ones such as beer. It is 71% carbohydrates, and it is one of the cereals that contain the highest quantity of fiber, about 10% of the total weight. It contains a good quantity of protein (10%) and a reduced fat content (less than 2%). One gram of barley supplies about 3.2Kcal.
Oats are eaten in many forms, the most common ones being those of flakes and flour (respectively 8 and 12.6% protein).
They are used to make excellent oven products, including bread. Oat flakes have excellent nutritional characteristics.
They supply excellent quality protein and linoleic acid, an omega-6 that the body can only assume through nutrition and that is essential to stay in good health.
Corn is very popular boiled or barbecued, as flour to make corn cake, oven desserts and bread.
Corn flour is almost entirely composed of carbohydrates (80%); it does not contain as much protein as other cereals (9%) and it has a lipid content of 3%. One gram of corn supplies approx. 3.62Kcal. It is gluten free.
It is part of the so-called “minor” cereals because it is characterized by a low production rate in Western Countries.
It is gluten free and every 100g of product contain almost 12% protein, including 1.4g of leukine, an essential amino acid which is important for maintaining muscle tissue and that also reduces the feeling of hunger, an important factor in low-calorie diets. To maintain the majority of nutrients from the millet it is necessary to cook it like rice.
Quinoa is a cereal, even if it is an herbaceous plant, because it has nutritional characteristics similar to the Gramineae family.
It differs from them for its higher protein content (14%) and, above all, because it is gluten free. Quinoa is cooked like couscous of durum wheat, making it absorb all the water in the pan to preserve the greatest part of the nutrients.
Buckwheat is a cereal. Like Quinoa, it is an herbaceous plant and supplies 12.4% protein. It is also gluten free, a reason that makes its flour perfect for celiacs. Thanks to the quality of its protein (amino acids) it is recommended in vegan diets, just like oats, millet and quinoa.
Carbohydrates are an excellent source of energy for the body, in particular the complex kinds contained primarily in cereals.
They transform into glucose and, like all carbohydrates, provide slow-releasing energy. This enables greater control of the appetite and a steady long-lasting quantity of energy which is required to tackle the entire day.
We should not do without cereals, not even at each main meal. Instead, we can give up excessive portions of bread, pasta and oven products in general. In particular, we can dress pasta with simple light dressings…. tomato sauce first and foremost!
The contents of this article are in accordance with the parameters set out by the European Food Safety Authority - EFSA.