However, especially in the Asian countries, most rice is refined, or polished. Although removing just the outer bran layers would still leave most of the nutrients, further milling takes place. The rice is bleached, cleaned, pearled (polished with talc), then often oiled and coated. This may make the rice more pleasing, even somewhat more digestible, but it unfortunately removes a great deal of the nutrients. The oils are lost, the protein decreases, and most (80 percent) of the thiamine (B1) is removed, as well as other B vitamins, for example, 50 percent of the pyridoxine, B6, and riboflavin, B2, and two-thirds of the niacin, B3, and some of the minerals. Polished or refined rice is easier for most people to digest owing to the increased starch level and loss of the outer hulls. Refined rice flour is also more stable because, as with wheat, the oils that can rancidify are lost. But what is the point if we lose the overall nutrition? People on a high polished-rice diet got into a great deal of trouble with a disease called beri-beri until it was learned that it came from a thiamine deficiency from eating refined rice. In China, the white rice was considered a more prestigous food than the whole, “dirty” rice that the peasants commonly ate.
Rice is not as high in protein as wheat and some other grains, about 10 percent, but the protein is very good quality and easily usable. Brown rice is better in thiamine, biotin, niacin, pyridoxine, and pantothenic and folic acids than it is in riboflavin and vitamin B12. It has no vitamins A or C, but some vitamin E. Rice, if grown in selenium-rich soil, is very rich in selenium, a scarce but important trace mineral. Magnesium, manganese, potassium, zinc, and iron are all found in good amounts. Sodium is low, but phosphorus, copper, and calcium are all available. White rice, even when enriched, is lower in all of these minerals, yet, whole grain rice is one our more broad-based, nutrient-rich foods.
Wild rice is a special and more expensive type of rice (it is actually not rice, but a different grain plant). It has twice as much protein as regular rice, and more niacin, riboflavin, iron, and phosphorus than brown rice, though less of many other nutrients.
Rye grows best in a cold climate and is much used in Russia, Scandinavia, and northern Europe. Rye is more resistant than wheat and will sustain itself in mountainous northern climates and sandy plains. Rye is often mixed with wheat to make what is called “rye” bread. Pure rye bread (not readily available) is a very nourishing black bread with a rich flavor. Light ryes are usually made with a refined rye flour. Dark rye breads are often made of wheat flour with some rye and dyes to darken the flour. Rye is also used to make whiskey but is not very often used as an animal feed. The rye stalks are very strong and are occasionally used in basket weaving.
Rye is also a gluten grain, though it is lower in gluten than wheat. It is nearly 20 percent protein and a good fiber food, with a mixture of the B vitamins. Iron, magnesium, and potassium are found in the greatest levels, though phosphorus, calcium, and copper are also present.
The most important and oldest of the cereal grains, wheat feeds more people in the world than any other food and is now cultivated worldwide, with the exceptions of the colder climates and tropical areas. The Soviet Union, the United States, and China are the top three wheat-producing nations. Production has more than doubled in the twentieth century, and close to two billion people use wheat regularly in their diets. There are two basic varieties of wheat—”hard,” or durum, wheat, and soft wheat. Hard wheat tends to have a little more protein and is often used to make macaroni and pasta. It also can be ground into flour to make bread, though the soft wheat is more commonly used for bread making. Wheat is the ideal grain for bread, not only because of its starch content but also because of its gluten protein. Gluten gives wheat its tenacious elasticity so characteristic of good dough, and it is primarily the gluten that responds and expands with yeast treatment. Refined soft wheat flour is used by most people to make pastries, cookies, and cakes, though whole wheat flour can be used as well. When buying flours, get them fresh and store them in the freezer or fridge if possible to prevent oxidation and rancidity, or infestation with bugs.
The nutrient content of wheat may vary somewhat depending on the soil availability. The protein content may also vary between 10–20 percent of the wheat kernel. Wheat protein is of good quality and easily usable, but it does not contain high or equal amounts of all the essential amino acids. It is low in lysine and isoleucine. Gluten, the main wheat protein, can be concentrated by slowly running water over the flour dough to dissolve the starch. This leaves a gelatinous protein, which is the basis of a meatlike substitute, used in Oriental cooking, called seitan.
Wheat is also fairly high in the B vitamins except B12. Vitamins C and A are not available, though vitamin E is present in whole wheat. Potassium, magnesium, iron, zinc, and phosphorus are all present in high amounts in whole wheat. Selenium is also very rich. Calcium and copper are found in wheat, but it contains very little sodium and no manganese.
Bulgur wheat is a special preparation of the wheat grain that is commonly used in the Middle Eastern countries, though its use has spread throughout the world, especially to Europe and the United States. The wheat kernels are washed, scrubbed, cracked, and then dried. These smaller grains can then be cooked or even just soaked in water, where they swell in size. This grain is most commonly used in a salad called tabouli or tabuleh.
Another variety of cracked wheat, smaller than the bulgur, is called couscous. It is also used commonly in the Middle Eastern diet—mutton and couscous is the traditional faire in those countries. Couscous is also very good with lentils or chickpeas, and this versatile grain can be used in a main dish, as a salad, or even in desserts. It is easily prepared by pouring boiling water over this soft grain or by light cooking.