March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Ancient Grain a Nutrition Powerhouse
Freekeh is an old grain. Ancient, in fact. It's been enjoyed for centuries in countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Now freekeh (pronounced "free-kah") is gaining popularity in American kitchens, particularly for its nutritional punch. Compared to other grains, "It is higher in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and lower in glycemic index," says Vandana R. Sheth, RDN, CDE, Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
What Is It?
Freekeh is made from young wheat (typically durum) that is harvested while still green and put through a roasting and rubbing process during production. It has a smoky, nutty flavor and a firm, chewy texture similar to bulgur. It's versatile and easy to work with in the kitchen. "Freekeh cooks in 20 minutes and can easily be substituted for rice or couscous in a meal," says Sheth. "[It] can be enjoyed as a cereal, in the form of puddings, in soups, casseroles or even enjoyed as a pilaf/side dish."
Alternating your rice with freekeh could come with some additional health benefits. For example:
It might help you lose weight. "The fact that freekeh is high in protein and fiber does provide more of a satiety feeling," Sheth explains. "This might therefore lead to less overall calories being consumed and help with weight loss." Freekeh has three times the amount of fiber as brown rice, according to nutrient data from Australian producer Greenwheat Freekeh. And research shows that a fiber-rich diet is linked to lower body weight.
It could protect your eyes. "[Freekeh] is rich in lutein and zeaxanthin both of which have been positively associated with prevention of age-related macular degeneration," says Sheth. Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids (a type of antioxidant) that promote eye health.
It may tame your tummy. Emerging research suggests that freekeh may offer benefits to digestive health. Similar to other high fiber foods, it may help prevent constipation and lower risk of developing diverticular disease. It can also act like a prebiotic to increase healthy bacteria in your digestive tract.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that freekeh is not gluten-free, and, therefore, not safe for people with celiac disease. It may fit into a diabetes meal plan, but it's best to consult with your registered dietitian nutritionist or health practitioner first.
Freekeh can be found at ethnic stores and is becoming more available in health food stores and supermarkets.