Energizing and nutritious, buckwheat is available throughout the year and can be served as an alternative to rice or made into porridge.
While many people think that buckwheat is a cereal grain, it is actually a fruit seed that is related to rhubarb and sorrel making it a suitable substitute for grains for people who are sensitive to wheat or other grains that contain protein glutens. Buckwheat flowers are very fragrant and are attractive to bees that use them to produce a special, strongly flavored, dark honey.
A Grain That’s Good for Your Cardiovascular System
Diets that contain buckwheat have been linked to lowered risk of developing high cholesterol and high blood pressure. The Yi people of China consume a diet high in buckwheat (100 grams per day, about 3.5 ounces). When researchers tested blood lipids of 805 Yi Chinese, they found that buckwheat intake was associated with lower total serum cholesterol, lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL, the form linked to cardiovascular disease), and a high ratio of HDL (health-promoting cholesterol) to total cholesterol.
Buckwheat’s beneficial effects are due in part to its rich supply of flavonoids, particularly rutin. Flavonoids are phytonutrients that protect against disease by extending the action of vitamin C and acting as antioxidants. Buckwheat’s lipid-lowering activity is largely due to rutin and other flavonoid compounds. These compounds help maintain blood flow, keep platelets from clotting excessively (platelets are compounds in blood that, when triggered, clump together, thus preventing excessive blood loss, and protect LDL from free radical oxidation into potentially harmful cholesterol oxides. All these actions help to protect against heart disease.
Buckwheat is also a good source of magnesium. This mineral relaxes blood vessels, improving blood flow and nutrient delivery while lowering blood pressure—the perfect combination for a healthy cardiovascular system.
Better Blood Sugar Control and A Lowered Risk of Diabetes
The nutrients in buckwheat may contribute to blood sugar control. In a test that compared the effect on blood sugar of whole buckwheat groats to bread made from refined wheat flour, buckwheat groats significantly lowered blood glucose and insulin responses. Whole buckwheats also scored highest on their ability to satisfy hunger.
When researchers followed almost 36,000 women in Iowa during a six-year long study of the effects of whole grains and the incidence of diabetes, they found that women who consumed an average of 3 servings of whole grains daily had a 21 percent lower risk of diabetes compared to those who ate one serving per week. Because buckwheat is a good source of magnesium, it is also important to note that women who ate the most foods high in magnesium had a 24 percent lower risk of diabetes compared to women who ate the least.
Canadian researchers, publishing their findings in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry have found new evidence that buckwheat may be helpful in the management of diabetes. In a placebo-controlled study, a single dose of buckwheat seed extract lowered blood glucose levels by 12-19% at 90 and 120 minutes after administration when fed to laboratory animals with chemically-induced diabetes. No glucose reduction was seen in animals given placebo. The component in buckwheat responsible for its blood glucose-lowering effects appears to be chiro-inositol, a compound that has been shown in other animal and human studies to play a significant role in glucose metabolism and cell signaling. While researchers do not yet know precisely how it works, preliminary evidence suggests chiro-inositol makes cells more sensitive to insulin and may even act as an insulin mimic. Results of the Canadian study were so promising that one of the lead investigators, Roman Przbylski, is currently collaborating with Canadian-based Kade Research to develop new buckwheat varieties with much higher amounts of chiro-inositol. Although the animals used in this study had the equivalent of Type 1 diabetes in humans, the researchers are confident that buckwheat will exert similar glucose-lowering effects when given to animals with Type 2 diabetes, which is the next study on their agenda. Type 2 or non-insulin dependent diabetes, which is by far the most common form in humans (90% of diabetes in humans is Type 2), is characterized by an inability of cells to respond properly to insulin.
Buckwheat and other whole grains are also rich sources of magnesium, a mineral that acts as a co-factor for more than 300 enzymes, including enzymes involved in the body’s use of glucose and insulin secretion.
The FDA permits foods that contain at least 51% whole grains by weight (and are also low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol) to display a health claim stating consumption is linked to lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Now, research suggests regular consumption of whole grains also reduces risk of type 2 diabetes. (van Dam RM, Hu FB, Diabetes Care).
In this 8-year trial, involving 41,186 particpants of the Black Women’s Health Study, research data confirmed inverse associations between magnesium, calcium and major food sources in relation to type 2 diabetes that had already been reported in predominantly white populations.
Risk of type 2 diabetes was 31% lower in black women who frequently ate whole grains compared to those eating the least of these magnesium-rich foods. When the women’s dietary intake of magnesium intake was considered by itself, a beneficial, but lesser—19%—reduction in risk of type 2 diabetes was found, indicating that whole grains offer special benefits in promoting healthy blood sugar control. Daily consumption of low-fat dairy foods was also helpful, lowering risk of type 2 diabetes by 13%. Get the benefits of both buckwheat and dairy by enjoying a hearty breakfast of hot buckwheat topped with low-fat milk and a spoonful of maple syrup.
Helps Prevent Gallstones
Eating foods high in insoluble fiber, such as buckwheat, can help women avoid gallstones, shows a study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.
Studying the overall fiber intake and types of fiber consumed over a 16 year period by over 69,000 women in the Nurses Health Study, researchers found that those consuming the most fiber overall (both soluble and insoluble) had a 13% lower risk of developing gallstones compared to women consuming the fewest fiber-rich foods.
Those eating the most foods rich in insoluble fiber gained even more protection against gallstones: a 17% lower risk compared to women eating the least. And the protection was dose-related; a 5-gram increase in insoluble fiber intake dropped risk dropped 10%.
How do foods rich in insoluble fiber help prevent gallstones? Researchers think insoluble fiber not only speeds intestinal transit time (how quickly food moves through the intestines), but reduces the secretion of bile acids (excessive amounts contribute to gallstone formation), increases insulin sensitivity and lowers triglycerides (blood fats). Abundant in all whole grains, insoluble fiber is also found in nuts and the edible skin of fruits and vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, many squash, apples, berries, and pears. In addition, beans provide insoluble as well as soluble fiber.
Health-Promoting Potential Equal to or Even Higher than that of Vegetables and Fruits
Research reported at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) International Conference on Food, Nutrition and Cancer, by Rui Hai Liu, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues at Cornell University shows that whole grains, such as buckwheat, contain many powerful phytonutrients whose activity has gone unrecognized because research methods have overlooked them.
Despite the fact that for years researchers have been measuring the antioxidant power of a wide array of phytonutrients, they have typically measured only the “free” forms of these substances, which dissolve quickly and are immediately absorbed into the bloodstream. They have not looked at the “bound” forms, which are attached to the walls of plant cells and must be released by intestinal bacteria during digestion before they can be absorbed.
Phenolics, powerful antioxidants that work in multiple ways to prevent disease, are one major class of phytonutrients that have been widely studied. Included in this broad category are such compounds as quercetin, curcumin, ellagic acid, catechins, and many others that appear frequently in the health news.
When Dr. Liu and his colleagues measured the relative amounts of phenolics, and whether they were present in bound or free form, in common fruits and vegetables like apples, red grapes, broccoli and spinach, they found that phenolics in the “free” form averaged 76% of the total number of phenolics in these foods. In whole grains, however, “free” phenolics accounted for less than 1% of the total, while the remaining 99% were in “bound” form.
In his presentation, Dr. Liu explained that because researchers have examined whole grains with the same process used to measure antioxidants in vegetables and fruits&mash;looking for their content of “free” phenolics”—the amount and activity of antioxidants in whole grains has been vastly underestimated.
Despite the differences in fruits’, vegetables’ and whole grains’ content of “free” and “bound” phenolics, the total antioxidant activity in all three types of whole foods is similar, according to Dr. Liu’s research. His team measured the antioxidant activity of various foods, assigning each a rating based on a formula (micromoles of vitamin C equivalent per gram). Broccoli and spinach measured 80 and 81, respectively; apple and banana measured 98 and 65; and of the whole grains tested, corn measured 181, whole wheat 77, oats 75, and brown rice 56.
Dr. Liu’s findings may help explain why studies have shown that populations eating diets high in fiber-rich whole grains consistently have lower risk for colon cancer, yet short-term clinical trials that have focused on fiber alone in lowering colon cancer risk, often to the point of giving subjects isolated fiber supplements, yield inconsistent results. The explanation is most likely that these studies have not taken into account the interactive effects of all the nutrients in whole grains—not just their fiber, but also their many phytonutrients. As far as whole grains are concerned, Dr. Liu believes that the key to their powerful cancer-fighting potential is precisely their wholeness. A grain of whole wheat consists of three parts—its endosperm (starch), bran and germ. When wheat—or any whole grain—is refined, its bran and germ are removed. Although these two parts make up only 15-17% of the grain’s weight, they contain 83% of its phenolics. Dr. Liu says his recent findings on the antioxidant content of whole grains reinforce the message that a variety of foods should be eaten good health. “Different plant foods have different phytochemicals,” he said. “These substances go to different organs, tissues and cells, where they perform different functions. What your body needs to ward off disease is this synergistic effect—this teamwork—that is produced by eating a wide variety of plant foods, including whole grains.
Lignans Protect against Heart Disease
One type of phytonutrient especially abundant in whole grains such as buckwheat are plant lignans, which are converted by friendly flora in our intestines into mammalian lignans, including one called enterolactone that is thought to protect against breast and other hormone-dependent cancers as well as heart disease. In addition to whole grains, nuts, seeds and berries are rich sources of plant lignans, and vegetables, fruits, and beverages such as coffee, tea and wine also contain some. When blood levels of enterolactone were measured in 857 postmenopausal women in a Danish study published in the Journal of Nutrition, women eating the most whole grains were found to have significantly higher blood levels of this protective lignan. Women who ate more cabbage and leafy vegetables also had higher enterolactone levels.
Significant Cardiovascular Benefits for Postmenopausal Women
Eating a serving of whole grains, such as buckwheat, at least 6 times each week is an especially good idea for postmenopausal women with high cholesterol, high blood pressure or other signs of cardiovascular disease (CVD).
A 3-year prospective study of over 220 postmenopausal women with CVD, published in the American Heart Journal, shows that those eating at least 6 servings of whole grains each week experienced both:
- Slowed progression of atherosclerosis, the build-up of plaque that narrows the vessels through which blood flows, and
- Less progression in stenosis, the narrowing of the diameter of arterial passageways.
The women’s intake of fiber from fruits, vegetables and refined grains was not associated with a lessening in CVD progression.
Prevent Heart Failure with a Whole Grains Breakfast
Heart failure is the leading cause of hospitalization among the elderly in the United States. Success of drug treatment is only partial (ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers are typically used; no evidence has found statins safe or effective for heart failure), and its prognosis remains poor. Follow up of 2445 discharged hospital patients with heart failure revealed that 37.3% died during the first year, and 78.5% died within 5 years.
Since consumption of whole grain products and dietary fiber has been shown to reduce the risk of high blood pressure and heart attack, Harvard researchers decided to look at the effects of cereal consumption on heart failure risk and followed 21,376 participants in the Physicians Health Study over a period of 19.6 years.
After adjusting for confounding factors (age, smoking, alcohol consumption, vegetable consumption, use of vitamins, exercise, and history of heart disease), they found that men who simply enjoyed a daily morning bowl of whole grain (but not refined) cereal had a 29% lower risk of heart failure. Isn’t your heart worth protecting, especially when the prescription—a morning bowl of hearty whole grains—is so delicious? For quick, easy, heart-healthy, whole grain recipes, click The World’s Healthiest Foods, and look at the “How to Enjoy” section in any of our grain profiles.
Fiber from Whole Grains and Fruit Protective against Breast Cancer
When researchers looked at how much fiber 35,972 participants in the UK Women’s Cohort Study ate, they found a diet rich in fiber from whole grains, such as buckwheat, and fruit offered significant protection against breast cancer for pre-menopausal women. (Cade JE, Burley VJ, et al., International Journal of Epidemiology).
Pre-menopausal women eating the most fiber (>30 grams daily) more than halved their risk of developing breast cancer, enjoying a 52% lower risk of breast cancer compared to women whose diets supplied the least fiber (<20 grams/day).
Fiber supplied by whole grains offered the most protection. Pre-menopausal women eating the most whole grain fiber (at least 13 g/day) had a 41% reduced risk of breast cancer, compared to those with the lowest whole grain fiber intake (4 g or less per day).
Fiber from fruit was also protective. Pre-menopausal women whose diets supplied the most fiber from fruit (at least 6 g/day) had a 29% reduced risk of breast cancer, compared to those with the lowest fruit fiber intake (2 g or less per day).
Practical Tip: As the following table shows, it’s surprisingly easy to enjoy a healthy way of eating that delivers at least 13 grams of whole grain fiber and 6 grams of fiber from fruit each day.
||Fiber Content in Grams
|Oatmeal, 1 cup
|Whole wheat bread, 1 slice
|Whole wheat spaghetti, 1 cup
|Brown rice, 1 cup
|Barley, 1 cup
|Buckwheat, 1 cup
|Rye, 1/3 cup
|Corn, 1 cup
|Apple, 1 medium with skin
|Banana, 1 medium
|Blueberries, 1 cup
|Orange, 1 large
|Pear, 1 large
|Prunes, 1/4 cup
|Strawberries, 1 cup
|Raspberries, 1 cup
*Fiber content can vary between brands. Source: esha Research, Food Processor for Windows, Version 7.8
Additional Research Finds Cereal and Fruit Fiber Protective against Postmenopausal Breast Cancer
Results of a prospective study involving 51,823 postmenopausal women for an average of 8.3 years showed a 34% reduction in breast cancer risk for those consuming the most fruit fiber compared to those consuming the least. In addition, in the subgroup of women who had ever used hormone replacement, those consuming the most fiber, especially cereal fiber, had a 50% reduction in their risk of breast cancer compared to those consuming the least. Int J Cancer. 2008 Jan 15;122(2):403-12.
Fruits richest in fiber include apples, dates, figs, pears and prunes. When choosing a high fiber cereal, look for whole grain cereals as they supply the most bran (a mere 1/3rd cup of bran contains about 14 grams of fiber). With its rich, nutty flavor, buckwheat makes a great breakfast alternative to a bowl of hot oatmeal. A cup of buckwheat delivers 20% of the RDI for fiber for just 154 calories!
Whole Grains and Fish Highly Protective against Childhood Asthma
According to the American Lung Association, almost 20 million Americans suffer from asthma, which is reported to be responsible for over 14 million lost school days in children, and an annual economic cost of more than $16.1 billion.
Increasing consumption of whole grains and fish could reduce the risk of childhood asthma by about 50%, suggests the International Study on Allergy and Asthma in Childhood (Tabak C, Wijga AH, Thorax).
The researchers, from the Dutch National Institute of Public Health and the Environment, Utrecht University, University Medical Center Groningen, used food frequency questionnaires completed by the parents of 598 Dutch children aged 8-13 years. They assessed the children’s consumption of a range of foods including fish, fruits, vegetables, dairy and whole grain products. Data on asthma and wheezing were also assessed using medical tests as well as questionnaires.
While no association between asthma and intake of fruits, vegetables, and dairy products was found (a result at odds with other studies that have supported a link between antioxidant intake, particularly vitamins C and E, and asthma), the children’s intake of both whole grains and fish was significantly linked to incidence of wheezing and current asthma.
In children with a low intake of fish and whole grains, the prevalence of wheezing was almost 20%, but was only 4.2% in children with a high intake of both foods. Low intake of fish and whole grains also correlated with a much higher incidence of current asthma (16.7%). compared to only a 2.8% incidence of current asthma among children with a high intake of both foods.
After adjusting results for possible confounding factors, such as the educational level of the mother, and total energy intake, high intakes of whole grains and fish were found to be associated with a 54 and 66% reduction in the probability of being asthmatic, respectively.
The probability of having asthma with bronchial hyperresponsiveness (BHR), defined as having an increased sensitivity to factors that cause narrowing of the airways, was reduced by 72 and 88% when children had a high-intake of whole grains and fish, respectively. Lead researcher, CoraTabak commented, “The rise in the prevalence of asthma in western societies may be related to changed dietary habits.” We agree. The Standard American Diet is sorely deficient in the numerous anti-inflammatory compounds found in fish and whole grains, notably, the omega-3 fats supplied by cold water fish and the magnesium and vitamin E provided by whole grains. One caution: wheat may need to be avoided as it is a common food allergen associated with asthma.
Meta-analysis Explains Whole Grains’ Health Benefits
In many studies, eating whole grains, such as buckwheat, has been linked to protection against atherosclerosis, ischemic stroke, diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and premature death. A new study and accompanying editorial, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition explains the likely reasons behind these findings and recommends at least 3 servings of whole grains should be eaten daily.
Whole grains are concentrated sources of fiber. In this meta-analysis of 7 studies including more than 150,000 persons, those whose diets provided the highest dietary fiber intake had a 29% lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared to those with the lowest fiber intake.
But it’s not just fiber’s ability to serve as a bulking agent that is responsible for its beneficial effects as a component of whole grains. Wheat bran, for example, which constitutes 15% of most whole-grain wheat kernels but is virtually non-existent in refined wheat flour, is rich in minerals, antioxidants, lignans, and other phytonutrients—as well as in fiber.
In addition to the matrix of nutrients in their dietary fibers, the whole-grain arsenal includes a wide variety of additional nutrients and phytonutrients that reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Compounds in whole grains that have cholesterol-lowering effects include polyunsaturated fatty acids, oligosaccharides, plant sterols and stanols, and saponins.
Whole grains are also important dietary sources of water-soluble, fat-soluble, and insoluble antioxidants. The long list of cereal antioxidants includes vitamin E, tocotrieonols, selenium, phenolic acids, and phytic acid. These multifunctional antioxidants come in immediate-release to slow-release forms and thus are available throughout the gastrointestinal tract over a long period after being consumed.
The high antioxidant capacity of wheat bran, for example, is 20-fold that of refined wheat flour (endosperm). Although the role of antioxidant supplements in protecting against cardiovascular disease has been questioned, prospective population studies consistently suggest that when consumed in whole foods, antioxidants are associated with significant protection against cardiovascular disease. Because free radical damage to cholesterol appears to contribute significantly to the development of atherosclerosis, the broad range of antioxidant activities from the phytonutrients abundant in whole-grains is thought to play a strong role in their cardio-protective effects.
Like soybeans, whole grains are good sources of phytoestrogens, plant compounds that may affect blood cholesterol levels, blood vessel elasticity, bone metabolism, and many other cellular metabolic processes.
Whole grains are rich sources of lignans that are converted by the human gut to enterolactone and enterodiole. In studies of Finnish men, blood levels of enterolactone have been found to have an inverse relation not just to cardiovascular-related death, but to all causes of death, which suggests that the plant lignans in whole grains may play an important role in their protective effects.
Lower insulin levels may also contribute to the protective effects of whole grains. In many persons, the risks of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity are linked to insulin resistance. Higher intakes of whole grains are associated with increased sensitivity to insulin in population studies and clinical trials. Why? Because whole grains improve insulin sensitivity by lowering the glycemic index of the diet while increasing its content of fiber, magnesium, and vitamin E.
The whole kernel of truth: as part of your healthy way of eating, whole grains, such as buckwheat, can significantly lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americansrecommends at least 3 servings of whole-grain foods each day, but experts say most Americans eat less than a single serving. Don’t be part of this majority! No idea how to cook whole grains? Just look at the “How to Enjoy” section in our profiles of the whole grains, or for quick, easy, delicious recipes, click on this link to our Recipe Assistant and select the whole grain you would like to prepare.
While many people think that buckwheat is a cereal grain, it is actually a fruit seed that is related to rhubarb and sorrel. (We classify it as a grain on our website because it categorized as such from a culinary perspective.) Common and tartary buckwheat are the varieties that are popular in the United States. Its name is supposedly derived from the Dutch word bockweit, which means “beech wheat,” reflecting buckwheat’s beechnut-like shape and its wheat-like characteristics. Buckwheat flowers are very fragrant and are attractive to bees that use them to produce a special, strongly flavored, dark honey.
While buckwheat is of similar size to wheat kernels, it features a unique triangular shape. In order to be edible, the outer hull must be removed, a process that requires special milling equipment due to its unusual shape. Buckwheat is sold either unroasted or roasted, the latter oftentimes called “kasha,” from which a traditional European dish is made. Unroasted buckwheat has a soft, subtle flavor, while roasted buckwheat has more of an earthy, nutty taste. Its color ranges from tannish-pink to brown. Buckwheat is often served as a rice alternative or porridge.
Buckwheat is also ground into flour, available in either light or dark forms, with the darker variety being more nutritious. Since buckwheat does not contain gluten, it is often mixed with some type of gluten-containing flour (such as wheat) for baking. In the United States, buckwheat flour is often used to make buckwheat pancakes, a real delight, especially for those allergic to wheat.
Buckwheat is native to Northern Europe as well as Asia. From the 10th through the 13th century, it was widely cultivated in China. From there, it spread to Europe and Russia in the 14th and 15th centuries, and was introduced in the United States by the Dutch during the 17th century.
Buckwheat is widely produced in Russia and Poland, where it plays an important role in their traditional cuisines. Other countries where buckwheat is cultivated commercially include the United States, Canada, and France, the country famous for its buckwheat crepes.
How to Select and Store
Just as with any other food that you may purchase in the bulk section, make sure that the bins containing the buckwheat are covered and that the store has a good product turnover to ensure its maximal freshness. Whether purchasing buckwheat in bulk or in a packaged container, make sure there is no evidence of moisture.
Place buckwheat in an airtight container and store in a cool dry place. Buckwheat flour should be always stored in the refrigerator, while other buckwheat products should be kept refrigerated if you live in a warm climate or during periods of warmer weather. Stored properly, whole buckwheat can last up to one year, while the flour will keep fresh for several months.
Tips for Preparing and Cooking
Tips for Preparing Buckwheat
Like all grains, buckwheat should be rinsed thoroughly under running water before cooking, and any dirt or debris should be removed. After rinsing, add one part buckwheat to two parts boiling water or broth. After the liquid has returned to a boil, turn down the heat, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes.
How to Enjoy?
A Few Quick Serving Ideas
- Combine buckwheat flour with whole wheat flour to make delicious breads, muffins and pancakes.
- Cook up a pot of buckwheat for a change of pace from hot oatmeal as a delicious hearty breakfast cereal.
- Add cooked buckwheat to soups or stews to give them a hardier flavor and deeper texture.
- Add chopped chicken, garden peas, pumpkin seeds and scallions to cooked and cooled buckwheat for a delightful lunch or dinner salad.
For some of our favorite recipes, click Recipes.
Buckwheat can be safely eaten by people who have celiac disease as it does not contain gluten. Buckwheat can be a good substitute for wheat, oats, rye and barley in a gluten-free diet.
Buckwheat is a very good source of manganese and a good source of copper, magnesium, dietary fiber and phosphorus. Buckwheat contains two flavonoids with significant health-promoting actions: rutin and quercitin. The protein in buckwheat is a high quality protein, containing all eight essential amino acids, including lysine.
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