Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
What Is Buckwheat?
Buckwheat is a nutritious and very useful grain substitute. Despite its name, it isn’t a type of wheat or even a grain. It belongs to the same family as rhubarb (the Polygonaceae family), and it doesn’t contain gluten. The fruits and seeds of the buckwheat plant have great health benefits for almost everyone, including people who have celiac disease or another gluten intolerance problem.
In this article, I discuss the plant and its culinary uses. I also include a chocolate cookie recipe that uses buckwheat flour, and I give some facts about the other ingredients in the recipe.
Facts About the Buckwheat Plant
Buckwheat fruits are usually obtained from Fagopyrum esculentum, which is also known as the common buckwheat. Unlike grains, this plant has broad, heart-shaped, and pointed leaves, as shown in the photo below. It also has clusters of small flowers that are white or light pink in color and have a pleasant scent. The fruit consists of a seed covered by a black hull.
Buckwheat is sold as whole fruits or as groats, which are the seeds with their hulls removed. The groats are triangular in shape and have a green or light brown seed coat, depending on the type of buckwheat. They soften when boiled in water. Buckwheat is also sold as grits, which are groats that have been cut into pieces, and as a flour, which is made by grinding the groats with or without their hulls into a powder.
Gluten Ingestion and Celiac Disease
Buckwheat and other gluten-free grains are useful for everyone but essential for people with celiac disease. Anyone with long-term digestive problems should visit a doctor. If the person has celiac disease, they must avoid gluten. In people who have the disease, the ingestion of gluten causes the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine. The attack causes inflammation that damages the villi, which are the folds that line the interior of the intestine. Without healthy villi, the absorption of nutrients from digested food is greatly decreased.
As a result of the inflammation and villi damage, a patient may experience a range of health problems in addition to intestinal ones. Fortunately, avoiding gluten often enables the intestine to heal. (A medical examination and guidance from a physician is essential for the patient, however.) Since gluten is found in many grains, grain substitutes such as buckwheat can be very helpful.
Buckwheat for food can be obtained in several forms. These include the intact fruit (the outer hull plus the seed inside), groats (the seeds alone after the hulls that cover them have been removed), grits (ground seeds), and a flour.
Uses of the Fruits, Groats, and Nectar
Buckwheat groats are added to soups, stews, or salads, just like rice or barley. Roasted buckwheat groats form a dish known as kasha, which is eaten as a savory porridge. Buckwheat porridge is also popular at breakfast time. The groats are sometimes used to make a beer. The flour made from the fruits or seeds is used to produce bread, noodles, and pancakes, which are very popular in some countries. It's also used in cake and cookie recipes and to make breakfast cereals.
Bees that collect their nectar from buckwheat flowers produce a dark, flavorful honey that contains more antioxidants than most lighter honey types. Antioxidants may have a number of health benefits, including the prevention of cell damage by chemicals known as oxidants.
Some people sleep on a pillow filled with the hulls of buckwheat fruits. This may sound uncomfortable, but proponents say that a buckwheat pillow helps to reduce neck pain. (I have never tried this process.) The pillow may not help all cases of neck pain. Caution is needed when trying the technique in case it makes a problem worse.
There is a tendency to use the term "buckwheat" on its own when people talk about nutrition, as in the phrase "Buckwheat is nutritious." It's understood that people are referring to the groats (seeds) of the plant. I follow this tendency below.
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Nutritional Value of Buckwheat Groats
The protein level in buckwheat groats is higher than in most grains. In addition, buckwheat protein contains a good quantity of all the essential amino acids that our bodies need but are unable to make. In contrast, the protein in many grains is low in the amino acid lysine.
Buckwheat is rich in carbohydrates and is a good source of fiber. It provides us with a range of B vitamins (but not vitamin B12) and is a very good source of magnesium, manganese, and copper. It also contains a significant quantity of other minerals, including phosphorus, zinc, iron, potassium, and selenium. In addition, it contains a small amount of fat. The fat consists of monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids in approximately equal amounts as well as a slightly lower amount of saturated fatty acids.
Like many plant foods, buckwheat does contain some substances that reduce the absorption of its nutrients, such as phytic acid. Sprouting and cooking buckwheat seeds removes many of these so-called "anti-nutrients."
Experts say that there is no doubt that buckwheat lacks gluten. Some people develop symptoms of a food allergy when they eat it, however, especially in some parts of the world. If a person is experimenting with their first buckwheat dish, it might be advisable to eat it in a small quantity to begin with.
Potential Health Benefits of Buckwheat
In whatever form it's used, buckwheat delivers all of the health benefits of the nutrients that it contains. It may also be beneficial due to some of its other components. Like other plants, it contains chemicals known as phytochemicals or phytonutrients. One of the phytochemicals in buckwheat is rutin, which belongs to a family known as flavonoids. Rutin may strengthen the walls of capillaries, lower high blood pressure, and act as an anti-inflammatory substance.
Another potential benefit of buckwheat is that it may lower the level of LDL cholesterol (the so-called "bad" cholesterol) in the blood. Buckwheat is also being investigated for its ability to lower the blood glucose level and help people with type 2 diabetes.
The preliminary research into the health benefits of buckwheat is very interesting, but more evidence is needed to confirm the results of this research. Some studies have been done on lab animals instead of humans, and some evidence comes from only one research project. It's already known that buckwheat is a great food to add to the diet because of its nutritional content, though.
A Useful Flour From the Fruits and Seeds
Buckwheat flour made from seeds with their hulls has a nutty taste. It has a dark color and contains black flecks produced from the hulls. Scientists have found that the hulls contain valuable nutrients, including flavonoids, which we lose when the hulls are removed.
Light buckwheat flour is made from hulled seeds and has a more neutral taste and a more appealing appearance for some people. It contains beneficial nutrients, but not as many as the dark flour.
Some people prefer to mix dark buckwheat flour with other gluten-free flours in their recipes so that they get a texture, color, or taste that they like. I often use a combination of dark buckwheat flour and sorghum flour, which is a nutritious and tasty mix. Like buckwheat, sorghum contains no gluten, as the third reference below states. Oat flour is a useful addition to the mix, too. It's important for people to buy an oat product that is guaranteed to be free of gluten if they have a problem with the substance.
If you have a serious gluten intolerance such as celiac disease, make sure that you check your flours to see if they are certified gluten-free by an independent laboratory. Grains and grain substitutes can sometimes become contaminated with gluten-containing grains while growing in the field, when placed in a storage facility which has recently stored grains containing gluten, or during processing of the grains into a flour.
Chocolate Cookie Ingredient Facts
I love all recipes that contain chocolate. Buckwheat flour works very well in chocolate cookies. I usually mix my buckwheat flour with sorghum flour, though. A combination of flours seems to work best when baking products that don't contain gluten. Potato, tapioca, or corn starch mixed with the flours adds a light texture to the cookies and helps to maintain moisture.
Xanthan gum is generally considered to be the best substitute for gluten in gluten-free foods, since it provides the binding ability that flours without gluten lack. The gum is sold as a powder. A bag of xanthan gum is quite expensive, at least in my area, but since only a little is used in each recipe it lasts for a long time.
Xanthan gum is a natural substance made by a bacterium called Xanthomonas campestris when it ferments carbohydrates. The gum is used as a thickener in other products besides food without gluten. It's also used as a stabilizer in cosmetics to prevent the ingredients from separating,
I try to use healthier ingredients in my recipe like dark buckwheat flour, whole, unrefined sugar in small quantities, and shortening containing mainly unsaturated fats and no hydrogenated fats. If you mustn't eat any gluten, make sure that the baking powder, the shortening, and the rice or other non-dairy milk are gluten-free.
Cocoa Health Benefits
Cocoa has some interesting health benefits, including reducing blood pressure and improving the health of blood vessels. It's also believed to increase the level of HDL cholesterol in the blood. This type of cholesterol is healthy, as opposed to LDL cholesterol, which is potentially harmful if it reaches a high level in the blood. In addition, cocoa may improve our thinking skills. Cocoa that is rich in flavonoids has more health benefits than cocoa that is lower in flavonoids. It should be noted that the potential health benefits of cocoa have been discovered in cocoa powder added to water, not in baked goods.
Although ingesting cocoa for health seems like a great idea, there is a problem with the idea. Products containing cocoa often contain lots of fat and sugar, which is definitely not healthy. In addition, the clinical trials with cocoa have often used a variety that is very high in flavonoids and not generally available to the public. The best that we can do is to buy the most natural form of cocoa that is available. Cocoa that has undergone the "Dutch" process tastes less bitter, but it also contains fewer flavonoids.
Flavonoids are a family of plant chemicals. Within this family are smaller subgroups, including one known as the flavanol group. Articles referring to the beneficial chemicals in cocoa may call them by their family name (flavonoids) or by their subgroup name (flavanols).
Chocolate Buckwheat Cookie Recipe
This recipe produces about 20 soft cookies on a 17-inch by 11-inch baking sheet or cookie pan.
- 1 cup buckwheat flour
- 1/2 cup sorghum flour
- 1/2 cup potato starch
- 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
- 1/2 cup cocoa
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/2 cup vegan shortening
- 3/4 cup gluten-free rice milk
- 1 tablespoon vanilla
- Before making the cookie dough, preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Mix the dry ingredients together.
- Mix the wet ingredients together.
- Mix the dry and wet ingredients.
- Place balls of dough on a nonstick baking sheet or cookie pan and slightly flatten the balls.
- Bake for 15 minutes, but check the cookies after 12 minutes.
- Remove the cookies from the oven and cool for about 5 minutes.
- Remove the cookies from the pan and cool on a wire rack.
Buckwheat in My Kitchen
Buckwheat can be used for far more than making cookies. It's a versatile grain substitute that is a very useful addition to a kitchen. It's a great food for everyone, whether or not they are gluten intolerant.
I nearly always have a buckwheat product in my home, whether it's in the form of the intact seeds, a cereal, or a flour. I appreciate both its taste and the nutrition that it provides. The availability of a variety of grains and grain substitutes in a home can help to make food interesting.
- Nutrients in buckwheat from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)
- Information about celiac disease from the Mayo Clinic
- A gluten-free diet from the Mayo Clinic
- Flavonoid information from the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University
- Facts about rutin (in abstract form) from ScienceDirect and Elsevier
- Effect of cocoa on HDL cholesterol from the NIH or National Institutes of Health
- Cocoa and thinking skills from Harvard Health Publishing
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2011 Linda Crampton