The Basics of Buckwheat

Copyright 1999 by Gluten-Free Living
Reprinted with the permission of the author. Gluten-Free Living is published bimonthly. To join the many celiacs who get information like this article delivered to them six times a year, send a check or money order to GLUTEN-FREE LIVING, POB 105, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, NY. 10706.

_The Basics of Buckwheat_, a recent article, is a good example of how GLUTEN-FREE LIVING tackles tough topics.

The first thing you should know about buckwheat is that itís gluten free. The most important thing you should know about buckwheat is whether itís contaminated

Despite its unfortunate (for celiacs) name buckwheat is a fruit. Itís a dicot in the polygonaceae family, which also includes rhubarb and sorrel. All known toxic grains are monocots.

Buckwheat has a variety of healthful properties. Itís an excellent plant source of easily digestive protein and contains all eight essential amino acids, so itís close to being a "complete" protein. Buckwheat is also high in fiber (a big bonus for celiacs), B vitamins and, according to a USDA study, keeps glucose levels in check better than other carbohydrates -- which is good news for celiacs who also have diabetes. Itís also said to lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol.

Buckwheat is hardy, which makes it resistant to damage and therefore relatively inexpensive and easy to grow. Tom Bilek, a Minnesota buckwheat grower, says "buckwheat will grow on anything." According to the National Buckwheat Institute, Buckwheat is one of the few commercially grown crops that does not use chemicals.

The dehulled, unroasted buckwheat seed, or groat, is used in breakfast cereals and milled into grits. When roasted the buckwheat seed is called kasha, which is also a breakfast food. In addition, kasha and groats can be baked, steamed or boiled and used as an alternative to potatoes and rice.

Despite the nutritional advantages, quick-cooking properties, and versatility of plain buckwheat, itís not a "popular" American food. Many Americans run into buckwheat when itís used as a flour in pancakes or breads, in which case itís almost always mixed with another flour, usually wheat. Buckwheat has a strong taste and has been variously described as "distinctive," "robust" or "not timid." For this reason, it works well with other flours to provide taste and zip.

Confusion about buckwheat has existed for quite some time within the celiac community. Information from the National Buckwheat Institute says, "Itís hard to imagine that of any fruit known to exist on earth, buckwheat would be the only known exception to the rule that fruit is gluten free."

While itís unlikely that buckwheat is an exception to this rule, celiac confusion about buckwheat is fairly easy to understand.

First, the name. The word buckwheat is said to come from the Anglo-Saxon words boc (beech) and whoet (wheat) because the seed resembled a small beech nut and was similar in size to a wheat kernel.

Second, buckwheat is listed on a few US celiac foods to avoid lists, sometimes without explanation. However, buckwheat is approved for the GF diet in Canada, Europe and Australia.

In fact, J.H.Skerrit, MD, an Australian researcher, showed about 10 years ago that alcohol-soluble buckwheat proteins bear little molecular similarity to wheat prolamins and therefore their description as gluten or gliadin is unfortunate and can lead to unnecessary exclusion of valuable sources of dietary protein in gluten-sensitive individuals.

Third, buckwheat is known to cause allergic reactions. Dr. Skerrit concluded, Severe clinical sensitivity to buckwheat has been noted in several patients, but it is of an allergic nature rather than an enteropathy such as celiac condition. This would indicate that those who react, whether celiac or not, should not eat buckwheat.

Fourth, buckwheat does have grain-like qualities and applications, which adds to the confusion as does, fifth, the reality that buckwheat flour is often mixed with other flours, usually wheat. These factors help us forget that buckwheat starts out gluten free and that it has other uses besides being turned into a flour thatís then mixed with gluten-containing flours.

Which brings us to the most significant celiac concern -- contamination.

Buckwheat can be contaminated primarily in the growing, milling and processing phases. (It can also be contaminated during storage and transportation , both of which are difficult to research. For the purposes of this article, we assumed storage or transportation contamination would be cleaned out before the buckwheat was milled. After milling, contamination would not be a concern if the cleaned, ground buckwheat was immediately packaged, unless the package was opened elsewhere and processed further.)

The growth stage appears to be the least perilous contamination stage, and is not worrisome at all when buckwheat comes from fields neither near nor rotated with gluten-containing grains.

But even when wheat and buckwheat are in close proximity while the buckwheat is growing, contamination may not be a problem. Clifford Orr, Executive Director of the National Buckwheat Institute, calls contamination of buckwheat with wheat highly unlikely because wheat would be harvested in July and a follow-up buckwheat crop the next July. Any volunteer wheat would have sprouted up in the spring and then been plowed under.

Steven Edwardson, Director of Research and Development at Minn-Dak Growers LTD., offers a slightly less reassuring but realistic explanation. He says, From time to time we do see an occasional wheat kernel in the buckwheat, but that is a rare occurrence. Since Minn-Dakís contract growers follow good rotation and production practices, they typically have minimal wheat contamination -- less than one percent -- and those who might see a wheat kernel would be the vast minority of the growers.

Plus, buckwheat does not go straight from the field into the mill. Like any crop, it must be cleaned before it is milled. Edwardson and Orr say buckwheat goes through a series of cleaning stages before milling to take care of stones, glass, etc.. Each stage uses a different size screen and sometimes a different process since contaminates come in many shapes and sizes.

They point out that wheat is a very different size and shape than todayís buckwheat, which is triangle shaped, and if wheat were present among the buckwheat groats, it would almost certainly be removed in the cleaning process.

At Minn-Dak, where Edwardson admits to the rare appearance of a wheat kernel, the raw buckwheat is cleaned and ground to 99.5 to 99.9 percent pure buckwheat flour. The fraction of a percent of impurities could be made up of a broken buckwheat stem or kernel, a misplaced hull or, yes, the rare wheat kernel.

From a celiac perspective, the cleaning process that occurs before milling is significant. Buckwheat is said to be a good rotation crop, so it could be rotated with a number of crops, including wheat. Concerned celiacs would like some reassurance that a buckwheat processorís cleaning operation has integrity.

Even with integrity, the assertion of 99.5 to 99.9 percent purity may be as close to pure buckwheat as we can get. Those celiacs who will accept only 100 percent pure will not hear it about buckwheat (and some other foods). But those who accept 99 point something as realistic in this flawed world and who view the admission of the possibility (versus the probability) of very rare contamination as something they can accept can comfortably add nutritious buckwheat to their GF diet -- as long as they research the product first.

It also helps to remember that cleanliness and purity are not solely celiac concerns. Non-celiacs, particularly food processors, may have different reasons than we do, but they, too, want a pure, clean product to deal with. It also helps to remember that is we put a few other foods celiacs never question under the same microscope Iím using here, we might only get to 99 point something percent pure.

Milling can create serious contamination hazards. Mills are usually powdery places where bits and pieces of plants can hang around on surfaces or even in the air. However, non-gluten containing plants milled in facilities that grind only non-gluten containing plants should be quite safe -- which is why celiacs often ask about dedicated facilities.

When non-gluten containing plants are ground in facilities that also grind gluten-containing plants, usually the equipment is cleaned in between, but in these instances, contamination would be a reasonable celiac concern.

Contamination possibilities in the processing phase depend on a number of variables too numerous to summarize here. As it happens, investigating the possibilities of buckwheat contamination turns out to be relatively easy. It seems that only a few US companies deal with buckwheat. We surveyed five companies, four of which sell retail buckwheat products (see following) and asked about a few aspects of their operations. Of the four, three companies produce buckwheat product that sound promising for celiacs.

BOUCHARD FAMILY FARMS is a self-contained operation that currently deals only with buckwheat and potatoes. Their buckwheat is rotated only with potatoes and their mill is used only for buckwheat. Bouchard is known for Ployes mix, a kind of griddle bread that contains buckwheat and whole wheat flour. Alban Bouchard says the whole wheat flour comes completely packaged from suppliers, and never comes in contact with the buckwheat flour that they sell plain.

THE BIRKETT MILLS, a larger operation, does handle wheat, but Cliff Orr, who is also vice-president of Birkett, says their buckwheat is milled in a separate, self-contained mill, and the ground buckwheat is packaged immediately at the mill. Birkett sells the widest variety of buckwheat products that are highly likely to be gluten free, and Orr says satisfied celiacs are among Birkettís best customers.

NEW HOPE MILL handles a variety of products, including buckwheat. They buy the buckwheat from various farmers, clean and grind it in a dedicated facility, then use the flour in several products. Of their buckwheat products, only the plain buckwheat flour, sold under the New Hope Mills label, could be considered safe for celiacs. The ground buckwheat flour goes directly into separate packaging at the mill.

ARROWHEAD MILLS buys buckwheat from The Birkett Mills, which send the flour in 50-pound bags. Arrowhead then process the flour on equipment that is not dedicated to non-gluten-containing products. According to a spokeswoman, the equipment is cleaned between runs and the first 40 to 50 pounds processed on the cleaned equipment and given to charity.

MINN-DAK GROWERS LTD., has the largest dedicated buckwheat milling facility in North America, which is why itís included here. The company also processes sunflower seeds and mills mustard seeds; both are gluten free.

Minn-Dak supplies buckwheat ingredients to the US and international food ingredients industry. According to Edwardson, the buckwheat Minn-Dak exports to Japan is guaranteed to be 99.5 to 99.9 percent pure. Similarly, the Minn-Dak buckwheat flour available in this country is thoroughly cleaned, ground in a state-of-the-art mill dedicated solely to buckwheat and then immediately packaged.

Minn-Dak wholesales their essentially pure buckwheat flour to food processors, so you wonít see a Minn-Dak label on store shelves. It might require a few phone calls to determine whether a processorís buckwheat comes from Minn-Dak. You would also need to ask the processor how they handle buckwheat flour once it reaches their facility.

You can contact these companies and decide for yourself whether you want to add buckwheat to your gluten-free diet. Hereís the information you will need:

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