Not All Seeds Are Grains

by Roy Collins


Over the past decade a number of articles have been written on the health benefits provided by the seeds of both quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) and amaranth (var. species of Amaranthaceae). Known for many years for their high protein content, the seeds of these plants are now enjoying a spot in the advertising limelight and are being hailed for their "mystical powers."

The authors of these articles, though accurate about nutritional data of seed composition, are incorrect in referring to these seeds as "grains." In actuality, they are herbaceous plants native to the Americas, with origins in the tropics. Most species of both genera are relatives of the rapid-growing and often annoying "weeds" known by the common name of "pigweed".

The seeds of both quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) and amaranth are very nutritious, however, and contain much useable protein and a high amount of lysine. Lysine is the amino acid missing in whole brown rice, but found in most legumes. The leaves of most species of "pigweed" are also edible and are rich in vitamins -- very similar in fact to the composition of domestic spinach, which botanists believe is a common ancestor to the pigweeds, often called wild spinach.

For centuries, Native Americans have used various parts of these pigweed plants as supplemental foods in addition to various species of corn. There is no conclusive evidence that either quinoa or amaranth were ever used in place of corn, at least not for any great length of time. Yet this is inferred by the manufacturers of these products when they use the term "grain" instead of seed in their package copy.

This inaccuracy of terminology is, however, not restricted to just the pigweeds. Buckwheat and psyllium are sometimes referred to as grain as well, along with many other forms of stock feed. The term "grass" is also used erroneously by many American farmers to cover a large group of plants with narrow, grass-like leaves such as alfalfa and clover (both legumes). The terms "grain" and "grass" can be used synonymously, but apply ONLY to a division of highly specialized plants belonging to the Gramineae family.

Traditionally, botanists, and especially agrostologists, have used the term "grain" to describe the small dry, one-sided "fruits" (achenes) of plants in a division that includes over 4,700 species. More commonly known as the grasses, this large family incorporates such diverse members as corn, sugar cane, manna grass and bamboo. Chronologically, the grasses made their appearence on Earth about three and a half million years ago, which roughly coincides with the appearance of our humanoid ancestors when they first began to walk on two feet.

The family of grasses is the most contemporary of the seed-bearing variety of plants known as Angiosperms. Other angiosperms, such as ginko, dogwood, mulberry and sassafrass date back as far a seventy-five millon years. Quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, goldenrod, as well as most herbs and familar garden vegetables (though much smaller in size) had existed only a few million years prior to the grasses.

What distinguishes the grasses from other plants is their obvious jointed stems that are usually hollow with a solid joint. The leaves are always two-ranked and alternate (usually flat), composed of a sheaf and a blade with a hinge (lingle) at their junction. The spiklets all have two-ranked scales (glumes) and florets. Of all plant forms in the seed-bearing category, the grasses appear to be most efficient in regards to reproduction, preservation, increase and dissemination of offspring. This reason is due to the uniqueness of their design where every part tends to utilze the most conservative methods of trapping light, absorbing energy and nutrients to insure uninhibited translocation throughout the entire organism, resulting in well-protected, well-formed, ripened ovules.

The grains of all grass plants are rich in starch and usually contain a considerabe quantity of protein and B-vitamins, and a minimal amount of oil. They have a mild Ph upon being cooked with is similar to the ratio in the blood of human beings, about 7.0. Modern research has found that these high "carbohydrate" foods aid in the release of serotonin in the brain, which helps to bring calm and a feeling of joy within the body/mind.

High-protein foods, on the other hand, tend to the opposite -- inhibit the release of serotonin, and can be held accountable for various forms of mental disease, especially schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and depression. Recent medical research has also found that the bran or outer layer (exocarp) of cereal grains helps to reduce blood serum cholesterol in humans, as well as the fiber content being found to aid the digestive system, and for protection against certain forms of cancers.

Once a "grain" becomes cultivated for use as human food, it then gets to hold the distinction of being a "cereal grain". Among the chief cereal grains used throughoput the world are wheat (Triticum), oats (Avena), corn (Zea) rye (Secale), barley (Hordeum), rice (Oryza) and millet (Setaria). Sorghum (Holcus), Indian rice (Zizania), Job's Tears (Coix) and the modern hybrid triticale are also important cereal grains. but not as economically popular as the former list.

All "cereal grains", when combined, comprise over one-half of the world's diet. In fact, nine-tenths of all cultivated seeds are CEREAL GRAINS. They serve as our principal source of vegetable protein. Other parts of plants, particularly the leaves, roots, and fruit pulp are eaten by most cultures, but do not come near to the amount of grain that is consumed.

No specific "tribe" of grass constitutes a selection that rates the definition as a cereal grain. Most popular varieties of cereals were chosen for cultivation simply because of their larger, higher-yielding grains. The large size factor, however, is only a disciminating tool used for the purpose of mass-marketing and high profits. This type of prejudice keeps us from exploring a much broader variety of wild grass species that offer equal, if not more potent, nutritional benefits. The foxtail millet comes first to mind. Well known as the chief component of bird seed, millet belongs to the genus Paniceae.

Proso millet (Panicum miliaceum) is the most popular of this species and has been used in Europe as a principal source of food since as early as 2700 B.C.E. Perhaps the most widely distributed, and certainly the most alkaline of the chief cereal grains, millet is known for its "soft shell" and easy digestability. It is especially good for people who are allergic to rice and wheat. The yellow and green varieties, as well as pearl millet, Italian millet and Japanese Barnyard grass are also quite hearty and contain more than twice the amount of minerals than brown rice or wheat. Fu Hsi, who founded the eight trigrams (pa gua) on which the I Ching is based, was one of the first humans to domesticate millet. This is interesting, as Fu Hsi never ate rice (it wasn't known in 3,000 B.C.E.), but applied the "concept" of yin and yang in his teaching! The same millet grows wild, all over the highways and byways of most American states.

Another, even smaller grain, used for centuries by Ethopian highlanders as a bread staple is Maskall teff (Eragostis abyssinica). With a seed- head no larger than the head of a pin, teff is purported to be higher in calciun, iron, copper and zinc than any other cereal grain.

To this author's knowledge, the grains of all grasses appear to be edible and nutritious. So profusely do they grow in the wild, even during times of drought, that it is inconceivable that hunger could ever exist. Yet few people are aware of this abundant food source, provided by nature, free of charge. So they go hungry -- not for lack of food -- but from ignorance of this fact!

All seeds, whether they be from the grasses, herbs, shrubs or trees, represent both the end and beginning of a complete life cycle. The image of a parent and offspring, packaged neatly with stored food inside a tiny globe, is the inherited blueprint of every seed. No other plant or plant part has this capability. Seeds also possess complex mechanisms in order to remain viable over long periods of time, even under harsh weather conditions. Given the proper conditions, any viable seed will sprout. If the seed is of a non- poisonous variety, the sprouts may be eaten raw or steamed. In this form they contain a rich source of vitamins, high enzymatic activity and are anti-scorbutic (they fight against scurvy).

Not all seeds are grains. Only members of the grass family can meet this criteria. Since quinoa and amaranth belong to non-grass plant species, their seeds can not be defined as "grains." Neither can buckwheat or psyllium. But no matter how great or how small a seed, or any part of a plant, may be, all are important sources of energy for humans and other animals alike.

From the Macrobiotic viewpoint, all foods found within one's native environment can be eaten when properly prepared according to the universal principle of yin and yang. The greater the variety consumed, the greater the resistance to disease, and the better the adaptive function -- this was proved by Darwin over a hundred years ago. No individual plant has yet been found, whether seed- bearing or not, that will independently satisfy the total nutritional requirements of our human species. Whether the reason be from weakened systems due to decades of abusive eating habits, or from polluted environments, or just for the fact that variety is the "spice of life", alternative food sources must constantly be explored.

From the Arctic circle to the sub-tropics, cereal grains have been used as a principal food source for millenia. This time-tested proof of their capability of sustaining world civilizations is living evidence that they remain central to the diet of modern and future societies. Our whole grain heritage is perhaps our greatest legacy. George Ohsawa used the grain analogy to spread the way of Macrobiotics by saying, One grain, ten thousand grains. To me, this saying holds great meaning.


Roy Collins is an I Ching scholar and practicing herbologist who has been offering apprenticeships for the past 30 years in the state of Rhode Island, USA. His forthcoming book is titled "Yin & Yang and the I Ching: 6,000 Years of Changing Opinion" and is slated to be published by the George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation. A basic handbook on healing using indigenous plants with the yin/yang approach is also underway.


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