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Grain of Month: Rye PDF Print E-mail

by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
October 2016

I became more acquainted with rye over the last couple years when I had volunteers of this beautiful grass present themselves in my garden. It is a tall grass with an exquisite sage green color and sheen to it, and anyone who grows winter rye in their garden will be familiar with its beauty. The grass produces the rye seed and is related to wheat and barley. Rye can be found in various forms: flour, flakes, berries, and rye chop or cracked rye (similar to the steel-cut oats version of rye, which is a quicker cooking version of rye berries).

Most of us are familiar with rye from its use in pumpernickel and rye bread, but for the most part it is underutilized, especially when compared to wheat consumption. It's been around for a long time—since the Roman Empire. Its hearty robust flavor is unique. Rye is sometimes referred to as "poverty grain" since it can grow in poor soils that other grains would not survive in and its past use in impoverished communities reinforced this stereotype. For many years it was thought of as a weed, when it grew amongst the wheat fields, but then farmers began to realize it grew fast and had many other positive qualities. Rye not only nourishes us as humans but the soil as well since it increases the nutrients in the soil, reduces soil erosion, and is often grown as a cover crop in New England during the cold weather months. It can withstand drought, Rye submersion during floods, and is amazingly resilient. Rye has long been and continues to be a staple grain in the Russian Federation, Poland, Turkey, and Scandinavia, where it can be grown in the cold and wet conditions that exist there. Rye is used in bread, crisp bread, some whiskeys, some vodkas, and also for animal fodder.

Rye is generally found in whole form since it is difficult to separate the germ and bran from the inner part of the seed—the endosperm, which is often the part that contains the least fiber in whole grains, but not so with rye. Rye not only has one of the highest amounts of fiber among whole grains, but it is also an excellent source of magnesium. It has numerous other health benefits too. Rye contains a high amount of noncellulose polysaccharides, which provides it with an unusual amount of water-binding capacity, thus producing a feeling of fullness that benefits any of us who want to watch how much we consume. It also has been shown to assist with prevention of gallstones since eating foods high in fiber helps with that. Another major attribute of rye is that it reduces the risk of Type 2 Diabetes—not only its high fiber level but also its high magnesium content plays a large role in the body's use of glucose and insulin secretion. Rye generally has a lower glycemic index than products made from wheat and most other grains, thus making it a better choice for diabetics. Rye’s high fiber content and numerous anti-cancer compounds has been shown to reduce the incidence of cancer too. Rye contains a large amount of plant compounds called lignans, which have been shown to play a protective effect on the incidence of heart disease. And according to studies, the lignans in rye have been shown to help with menopause. One type of lignan in rye has phytoestrogenic activity, which has been shown to reduce or prevent symptoms associated with menopause.

With all of that said, everyone could benefit from the consumption of more rye in our diet. Rye flour can be used in bread making but due to its lower gluten content needs to be combined with wheat flour or other higher gluten-containing flour. One hundred percent rye bread, as many of you may know, is very dense but also very tasty and has its own distinctive flavor and texture. Other baked products can be made with rye flour even if the recipes calls for all wheat flour. Just substitute a cup of rye flour for the wheat or other flour, whether you are making muffins, cookies, or pancakes. Many other things besides bread can be made with rye, such as a hot cereal with rye flakes, and salads, stews, or soups made with rye berries.