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The world’s three primary cereal plants, wheat, maize and rice, dominate the food market in spite of growing concerns about negative factors relating to health, particularly when cereals are genetically modified and/or processed.

Ancient pseudo-cereals, forgotten for centuries, are making a comeback in Western diets, as a healthier alternatively to traditional grains. Not only do they contain more protein than other grains, but they are also gluten-free.

Another advantage many will acknowledge is that pseudo-cereals are not genetically modified – at least not yet. Neither are they processed like other cereals, largely because their morphology is different (see below) and so known processing methods for grains don’t work for pseudo-grains.

The Difference Between Cereals and Pseudo-Cereals

There are significant differences between cereals and pseudo-cereals, even though the science-based nonprofit association AACC International includes pseudo-cereals (which they refer to as “ancient grains,” along with indigenous legumes, millets, and sorghum) in their classification of “recognized grains.” Further, pseudo-cereals can be used in similar ways to true cereals, including grinding down their seeds to make flour.

Cereals are grasses that belong to the Gramineae family, and are grown mainly for their edible starchy seeds. Traditionally an important source of carbohydrate, the world’s leading cereals are wheat and rice, which, according to the online Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, together provide close to 50 percent of the energy found in food. Other primary cereals include corn, barley, sorghum, types of small-seeded millet, oats and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye.) While these all have marked differences, all cereals are monocotyledons with seeds that typically have one embryonic leaf (or cotyledon.) Additionally, they have parallel, ladder-like leaf veins, flower parts are in multiples of three, and they have taproots.

Pseudo-cereals also produce seeds that are rich in starch, and like cereals, are classed as “flowering plants.” However they are dicotyledons, with two seed leaves, reticulated, net-like leaf veins, flowers parts that occur in multiples of four or five, and a fibrous root system.

Only three pseudo-cereals have gained any importance as grains 

They are:

  1. Amaranth – of which there are at least 60 different species including Amaranthus caudatus, A. cruentus, and A. hypochondriacs
  2. Buckwheat – Fagopyrum tartaricum, and F. esculentum (see photograph above)
  3. Quinoa – which comprises more than 250 different species including Chenopodium quinoa, Ch. pallidicaule, and Ch. nuttalia

All three of these pseudo-cereals belong to the sub-class Caryophyllidae, and both amaranth and quinoa are classed in the same order, Caryophyllales, while buckwheat belong to the order Polygonales. All three belong to different botanical families, Polygonaceae (buckwheat), Amaranthaceae (amaranth), and Chenopodiaceae (quinoa.)

As mentioned above, the morphological structure of cereals and pseudo-cereals is also quite different.  The embryo of cereals is found within a starchy endosperm, whereas the embryo of pseudo-cereals surrounds the starchy tissue in the form of a ring.

Other major differences between cereals and pseudo-cereals relate to both their nutritional value and chemical composition.

In a research project undertaken at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna, Emmerich Berghofer and Regine Schoenlechner compared the components found in wheat to the three pseudo-cereals. They found that the latter has significantly more nutritional benefits. For example:

  • Pseudo-cereals in general have a much higher, better quality protein content
  • Cereals contain much higher quantities of limiting amino acid in the form of lysine
  • Amaranth and quinoa both contain large amounts of arginine and histidine, which are essential nutrients for infants and children
  • Pseudo-cereals contain a higher fat content than other cereals, that is characterized by large amounts of unsaturated fatty acids in the form of linolenic acid
  • Amaranth contains a lot of squalene, more usually found in the liver of deep sea fish
  • Pseudo-cereals contain very low quantities of the plant storage proteins known as prolamins, that are found in wheat and other cereals, making them suitable for those with coeliac (or celiac) disease
  • The starch granules found in pseudo-cereals are small and the quantity much less than in other cereals
  • The fiber content of pseudo-cereals (particularly amaranth and quinoa) and other cereals is comparable
  • Mineral content of amaranth and quinoa is considerably higher than wheat, particularly calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium
  • Even though wheat contains more minerals than buckwheat seeds, it has more than many other cereals including maize, rice, millet and sorghum
  • Various vitamins are found in the pseudo-cereals, though amaranth is not actually considered to be an important source, even though it contains 2.5 times more folic acid than wheat – as does quinoa; both also contain riboflavin, vitamin C, and vitamin E, while buckwheat seeds are a sources of vitamins B2 and B6
  • Minute amounts of bitter-tasting saponins are found in all pseudo-cereals; these are anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-carcinogenic, and are seen to decrease cholesterol
  • Higher concentrations of saponins are sometimes found in the hull of whole-seed quinoa; dehulling removes the bitter taste
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