Buckwheat — a nutrient-packed, gluten-free seed that has been abundantly consumed in Asian countries for centuries — is now becoming increasingly popular in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
What are the benefits of eating buckwheat? Buckwheat seeds, also called “groats” or kasha in certain parts of the world,” are packed with nutrients and antioxidants − like rutin, tannins and catechin. In fact, due to buckwheat’s polyphenol content, buckwheat seed is considered by many to be a superfood.
Despite its recent rise to nutrition fame, it is actually an ancient “grain” with a long history. Is buckwheat gluten-free? You bet. Today, it is a favorite among plant-based and gluten-free eaters alike since it provides a high source of amino acids, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants — all with relatively few calories, practically no fat and zero gluten.
A major benefit of buckwheat compared to other grains is that it has a unique amino acid composition that gives it special biological activities. These include cholesterol-lowering effects, anti-hypertension effects and the ability to improve digestion, such as by relieving constipation.
What Is Buckwheat?
What is buckwheat made out of? It is itself a seed, although most of us think of it as a gluten-free grain, just like brown rice or rolled oats. Like other seeds, it is high in both protein and fiber, although it’s unique among seeds that we typically eat in that it’s lower in fat and higher in starch.
Research investigating the various bioactive compounds present in different strains have found that the groats contain:
- Phenolic compounds and flavonoids, including rutin, quercetin, chlorogenic acid, orientin, isoorientin, vitexin and isovitexin
- Fagopyritols (including galactosyl derivatives of D-chiro-inositol)
- As well as resistant starch and protein (especially amino acids, including lysine, tryptophan, threonine and the sulphur-containing amino acids)
There are actually many species grown worldwide. They can be classified into three types of species: so-called common buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), tataricum buckwheat (F. tataricum) and cymosum buckwheat (F. cymosum). Among these species, F. esculentum Moench (common/sweet buckwheat) and F. tataricum (L.) Gaertn. (tartary/bitter buckwheat) are the types most often eaten by humans.
It is usually found as raw “buckwheat groats.” It’s also made into buckwheat flour that is used in baking. Both are highly nutritious staples to keep in your kitchen, and they can be used in numerous ways. If you’ve never tried this ancient “grain” before, many describe its flavor as earthy, nutty and comforting.
What foods have buckwheat in them? Examples of traditional buckwheat recipes include buckwheat pancakes, buckwheat soba noodles and kasha stir-fries made with veggies like mushrooms.
Some of the ways you can use it at home include adding cooked groats to stews, soups or cold salads; replacing processed breakfast grains with it; and using the flour in muffins and breads, as well as to coat or bind meat when making meatballs.
One cup (about 168 grams) of cooked buckwheat groats contains approximately:
- 155 calories
- 33.5 grams carbohydrates
- 5.7 grams protein
- 1 gram fat
- 4.5 grams fiber
- 0.7 milligram manganese (34 percent DV)
- 85.7 milligrams magnesium (21 percent DV)
- 118 milligrams phosphorus (12 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligram copper (12 percent DV)
- 1.6 milligrams niacin (8 percent DV)
- 1 milligram zinc (7 percent DV)
- 1.3 milligrams iron (7 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram vitamin B6 (6 percent DV)
- 23.5 micrograms folate (6 percent DV)
- 0.6 milligram pantothenic acid (6 percent DV)
- 3.7 micrograms selenium (5 percent DV)
It in addition, it also contains some vitamin K, vitamin E, thiamine, riboflavin, choline, betaine, calcium and potassium.
1. Improves Heart Health By Lowering Cholesterol and Blood Pressure Levels
In clinical studies, findings suggest that buckwheat can help lower inflammation and unhealthy cholesterol levels, thereby helping to prevent cardiovascular disease. Intake is associated with lower serum total cholesterol levels, plus it decreases levels of LDL “bad cholesterol” while increasing HDL “good” cholesterol.
As a potential top cholesterol-lowering food, a 2018 review published in the journal Nutrients found that in the majority of studies examined, blood glucose, total cholesterol and triglycerides were significantly decreased following buckwheat interventions compared with controls.
Studies also show that rutin, a phytonutrient found in this seed, is an important antioxidant for cardiovascular health. This phytonutrient supports the circulatory system and helps fight high blood pressure and high cholesterol, as does the high fiber content.
Quercetin is another phenolic metabolite found in this ancient “grain” that in studies has been linked to a reduction of hyperlipidaemia, reduction of blood pressure and improved weight regulation.
2. Contains Disease-Fighting Antioxidants
Buckwheat nutrition contains protective phenolic compounds and antioxidants that can help fight cancer or heart disease formation, in addition to supporting brain function, liver function and digestive health. Studies show that rutin also has potential to be used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Antioxidants, including flavonoids like oligomeric proanthocyanidins, are found within the hulls and seeds, plus they are present in ground buckwheat flour.
The polyphenolic antioxidants act as therapeutic agents against free radical damage, also called reactive oxygen species or “oxidative stress.” Antioxidants support cellular function by protecting DNA from damage and preventing inflammation or cancerous cell formation.
3. Provides Highly Digestible Protein
Buckwheat nutrition is a great source of plant-based protein. This seed contains 12 amino acids — the “building blocks of protein” that support energy, growth and muscle synthesis. In fact, it has more protein than any form of rice, wheat, millet or corn. It contains roughly 11–14 grams of protein for every 100 grams, which isn’t as high as seeds like quinoa or most beans and legumes, but it is higher than most whole grains.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, buckwheat is a great food to regularly include in your diet because it provides two types of essential amino acids — types you cannot make on your own and must get from the foods you eat.
It contains essential amino acids called lysine and arginine. What’s important about this? These specific amino acids aren’t found in many other common cereal or whole grains, so getting them from this seed ensures you cover the full range of essential proteins your body needs.
4. High Fiber Content Is Filling and Helps Improve Digestion
Can you lose weight eating buckwheat? This ancient “grain” supplies about six grams of dietary fiber in every one-cup serving. High-fiber foods help to fill you up and hastens the transit of food through the digestive tract. This is important for regulating bowel movements. Buckwheat can even protect the digestive organs from cancer, infection and other negative symptoms by preventing oxidative stress within the colon and digestive tract.
When researchers from the Department of Food and Nutrition at Bucheon University in Korea tested the effects of buckwheat in animal studies, they observed higher antioxidant activities in the liver, colon and rectum of animals consuming it. Protective glutathione peroxidase and glutathione S-transferase antioxidants were all found in the digestive systems of the animals receiving the seed.
When buckwheat is fermented to create alcoholic drinks or certain types of sourdough bread, it can act as a valuable prebiotic that nourishes healthy bacteria in the digestive tract. Studies show that consuming fermented buckwheat products can improve the body’s pH level — or the balance between acidity and alkalinity — that keeps harmful bacteria and disease from forming.
5. Can Help Prevent Diabetes
Compared to many other carbohydrates and whole grains, buckwheat is low on the glycemic index. The complex carbohydrates found in its nutrition are absorbed into the bloodstream slowly. This helps you to feel full for longer and supports sustainable energy. It also helps fight imbalances in blood sugar levels that can lead to inflammation, fatigue, and even diabetes or metabolic syndrome.
Research shows us that buckwheat metabolites, such as rutin, may have protective effects in preserving insulin signaling and the ability to help fight insulin resistance. Studies found that when diabetic patients consumed this seed over a two-month period, they experienced improvements in blood sugar control and reduced insulin resistance without any form of medication.
6. Doesn’t Contain Gluten and Is Non-Allergenic
Buckwheat is very similar in taste, appearance, size and texture to barley — but its nutrition has the advantage of containing zero gluten. It is safe for anyone with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity and can stand in place of gluten-containing grains.
Remember, it isn’t even a grain — it’s actually a seed! Buckwheat and wheat are from completely different botanical families but can be used in many of the same ways. Avoiding gluten-containing grains and swapping in gluten-free grains instead can help prevent digestive disturbances like bloating, constipation, diarrhea and even leaky gut syndrome.
7. Supplies Important Vitamins and Minerals
Buckwheat groats and flour are great sources of energy-boosting B vitamins, plus minerals including manganese, magnesium, zinc, iron and folate. The supply of magnesium can further help improve digestion, aid in muscle growth and recovery, and defend against depression or stress’s negative impacts on the body.
B vitamins, manganese, phosphorus and zinc all help with healthy circulation and blood vessel function. They’re also needed for neurotransmitter signaling in the brain that fights depression, anxiety and headaches.
Records show that buckwheat has been grown since at least 1000 B.C. in China. It has been used for thousands of years in cuisines around the world, especially in Russia and parts of Asia. This ancient “grain” originated in North and Eastern regions of Asia, including throughout China.
Records show that it was first harvested in the high plains of southeastern China and the Himalayas. It has been a staple food of these cultures ever since — although, since this time rice and other cereal grains have gradually replaced it as the major carbohydrate sources in many Eastern cultures.
Still, buckwheat continues to be an important part of the diet in many nations. It is now experiencing a resurgence worldwide. Today, there are many types grown around the world, but most are harvested in North America. Currently, the most common buckwheat species is Fagopyrum esculentum Moench, which botanists refer to as just “buckwheat” or “sweet buckwheat.” It is now most widely consumed in countries including India, China, Japan, Nepal, Canada and Ukraine.
In Korea, Japan, Italy and China, it is mainly consumed in the form of noodles. In Eastern European countries, such as Ukraine, Poland and Russia, it is eaten mainly in the form of grains.
Throughout history, buckwheat was used medicinally, such as in Traditional Chinese Medicine, to help strengthen “qi” (vital energy), support functions of the spleen and stomach, to treat constipation, lower blood pressure and strengthen blood vessels. Some of the conditions that it is recommended for include fevers, various digestive issues, diarrhea, dysentery, spontaneous sweating, hypertension and skin conditions, including wounds and lesions.
Today, the buckwheat plant is also harvested when in bloom so that the leaves, flowers and stems can be used to make drugs/supplements. Because it contains high levels of rutin and other polyphenols, these compounds can be isolated and taken to help treat various inflammatory conditions.
Buckwheat vs. Wheat, Quinoa and Oats
Buckwheat is actually a dicotyledon plant, which makes it similar to quinoa and some other pulses or beans, since it’s cultivated as an annual flowering herb.
Is buckwheat better for you than wheat? Despite its name, buckwheat (or kasha) actually doesn’t contain any wheat or the protein gluten. It is a member of the Polygonaceae family of plants and completely unrelated to grains that do contain gluten, like wheat, barley, rye, spelt, farro and some others. For this reason, it’s used in many gluten-free baked items to add bulk and nutrients without causing allergic reactions or digestive issues.
Quinoa and buckwheat are similar in that they both contain more starch but less fat than many other types of seeds. This is why they are usually handled in the same way as whole grains. Quinoa is a 7,000-year-old plant that originated in the mountainous regions of South America. It is a great source of nutrients including manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, folate and copper. Compared to buckwheat, one cup of quinoa is a bit higher in calories, carbs, protein, iron, magnesium and thiamine. Both contain about the same amount of fiber and are good sources of various B vitamins.
Oats are unlike buckwheat because oats are whole grains as opposed to seeds. Oats are gluten-free, low in calories, high in fiber and a good source of nutrients like manganese, phosphorus, selenium and magnesium. Like all whole grains, oats even contain some healthy fatty acids since they retain their entire germ, endosperm and bran, which is where not only nutrients are stored, but also small amounts of essential fats. One of the best things about oats is that they contain soluble fiber, particularly a kind called beta-glucans, which can help naturally lower cholesterol and help improve insulin sensitivity.
Where to Find
In grocery stores, many types of buckwheat can be found. Grains, groats and flour are now becoming available in most markets across the U.S. If possible, look for whole hulled grains, toasted, parboiled and dried groats, which are ready to cook with. Unhulled seeds have a thick brown-black outer shell covering that needs to be removed before being edible. If you buy buckwheat flour, it should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer and used within a short notice of time since it naturally contains oils that can go bad quickly.
Look for these types of buckwheat products available in most large groceries stores:
- Raw buckwheat groats: These are sometimes called buckwheat hulls and are whole seeds that have been unprocessed and dried. Find them in many bulk-bin sections of health food stores at an even lower cost than buying packaged products. These are perfect for adding to salads, chili or making them into sweet dishes like buckwheat, coconut milk and chia seed porridge.
- “Creamy buckwheat”: Great for making breakfast porridges similar to oatmeal. Combine with fruits, nut, yogurt and any of your favorite breakfast toppings.
- Buckwheat flour: Useful for baking by combining it with either sprouted 100 percent whole wheat flour or a blend of gluten-free flours. You can also grind raw groats in a high-speed blender to make your own fresh flour.
- Kasha: This is a type of toasted buckwheat groat that is most popular in Russia. Use it in soups, stews or combined with vegetables as a side dish, such as with mushrooms, cabbage or onions.
- Soba noodles: “Soba” means buckwheat in Japanese. These can be used in place of any other noodles but are especially good for making hearty veggie-based soups. Most brands contain gluten depending on the flours they are made with, so read the ingredient label carefully if you are avoiding gluten.
How to Cook
Buckwheat is a versatile grain and is used in many different types of food products – everything from granola to Japanese soba noodles. In France, it is often made into crepes. Throughout Asia, it’s used to make soba noodles that are popular in soups and stir-fries. In the U.S., popular buckwheat recipes are those made with its flour, like muffins, cookies, breads and other snacks that are high in protein and fiber, but free of gluten.
How to cook buckwheat (from dried groats):
- First rinse them well and then combine with water on the stovetop in a 2:1 ratio, so two cups of water for every one cup of buckwheat.
- Simmer them on low for about 20 minutes, checking to see when they are plump and their texture is what you’re looking for.
- If they aren’t absorbing all the water and appear to become mushy, try straining some of the water out (some people prefer to use only 1.5 cups of water to one cup of buckwheat to prevent this from happening).
One of the best things you can do to improve the absorbability of the nutrients, plus its digestibility, is to sprout the hulls (or groats). This reduced “antinutrients” that can block a percentage of the vitamins and minerals found in this seed. Sprouting buckwheat groats also reduces enzymes that can make it hard to digest for some people.
To soak and then sprout, follow these steps:
- First soak dried hulls in a big bowl of water between 30 minutes to six hours. Then wash and strain the dried groats. Next leave them out in a dish or shallow bowl, on the countertop or somewhere where they will be exposed to air.
- Keep them slightly damp by adding just a small amount of water to the bowl/dish, but you don’t need them to be covered in water completely. Try adding just 1–2 tablespoons of water.
- Leave them out for 2–3 days, checking for small sprouts to form. Sprouts will vary from 1/8-inch to two inches long. When ready, rinse sprouts well, drain, and store in a jar or container.
- Keep in the refrigerator for up to seven days, but every day you need to rinse them to prevent mold and bacteria from forming.
Risks and Side Effects
Because buckwheat is a high-fiber food, it’s a good idea to introduce it into your diet slowly and to start by eating small servings. Drinking plenty of water with it and other whole grains/seeds can also help with digestion. Although it is gluten-free, it’s still possible to experience allergic reactions to buckwheat. You should avoid it if it causes any type of serious indigestion, skin rash, a runny nose, asthma, itching, swelling or changes in blood pressure.
- What is buckwheat? It is actually a seed as opposed to a whole grain, although it’s used in similar ways as grains like quinoa, barley or oats.
- Benefits of this seed include supporting heart health; supplying antioxidants and polyphenols like rutin and quercetin, plus fiber and plant-based protein; helping to prevent diabetes; fighting digestive disorders; and supplying vitamins and minerals like magnesium, iron and B vitamins.
- Is it gluten-free? Yes, its nutrition is unique compared to other “whole grains” because it’s actually a seed and unrelated to wheat, barley or rye grains.
- Around the world, buckwheat recipes using soba noodles or kasha grains are popular. It can be used to make gluten-free baked goods, pancakes, grain stir-fries, soups, stews and more.