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Buckwheat: A Gluten-Free Super Pseudograin

August 18, 2017 • 4 min read
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Buckwheat is a nutritious, gluten-free plant source of nutrients and phytonutrients with many health benefits supported by centuries of therapeutic use. Despite its name, it is completely unrelated to wheat.

In a world where dietary restrictions often determine what we eat, discovering nutritious alternatives can help meals become more enjoyable. Buckwheat is one of those alternatives, especially for those that are gluten free.

Buckwheat, despite its name, isn’t a wheat at all.  It belongs to the family Polygonaceae and is more closely related to sorrel and rhubarb. Despite its misleading name, it is a notable gluten-free food source, offering myriad health benefits and culinary applications.

What is Buckwheat?

Common buckwheat, or Fagopyrum esculentum, is an annual herb with small pink and white flowers and edible seeds, and it grows primarily in the Northern Hemisphere. Originally from Asia, most of the buckwheat grown and exported around the world comes from Russia and China. While it is typically consumed as dehulled buckwheat seeds in present day, the entire buckwheat plant has a long tradition of medicinal use in traditional remedies.1 It is also gluten-free and unrelated to wheat.

Historically, buckwheat was a popular food in many cultures. This holds particularly true in regions where other grains struggled to grow. Its adaptability to harsh climates and poor soils made it a valuable crop, especially in mountainous regions where other crops failed. It was commonly used in noodles, pancakes, porridge, and bread, and it’s long been a key food source for gluten-free diets in cultures around the world.

Traditional Therapeutic Uses 

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, buckwheat seeds invigorate the spleen and eliminate “food stagnation,” or slow digestion. In Korean traditional medicine, it is used therapeutically to promote detoxification, reduce inflammation, and reduce fevers. In the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia, it is listed as an anti-hemorrhagic and hypotensive drug.2 Traditionally, its leaves were used for ulcers and applied to wounds topically. The cooked leaves were used as a remedy for constipation.3

Nutritional Profile

While buckwheat may resemble wheat and other grains, common buckwheat is naturally gluten-free and completely unrelated to wheat, despite its name. Its blend of naturally occurring nutrients makes it an excellent choice for those looking for gluten-free options. Recent research has found that it may have specific benefits as an alternative grain for those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, finding that study participants experienced a significant decrease in inflammatory markers, as well as reduced abdominal pain and bloating when they switched to a buckwheat-based gluten-free diet from a gluten free diet not based on buckwheat.4

Buckwheat has an impressive nutritional profile high in essential amino acids and key vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, and calcium. Buckwheat is also an excellent source of fiber and B vitamins.

In addition to its highly nutritious slew of vitamins and minerals, buckwheat is high in health-promoting phytonutrient phenols, including tannins and flavonoids, such as quercetin and rutin.1-3 Sprouted buckwheat contains levels of rutin and quercetin 10 times higher than non-sprouted buckwheat. Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), also found in buckwheat, has recently been found to reduce blood pressure and inhibit angiotensin-1 converting enzyme (ACE) activity.1 

Health Benefits of Buckwheat

The potential health benefits of buckwheat are vast, and individuals who follow balanced diets that include buckwheat have been found to have significantly lower risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. 

Antioxidant Effect

Rutin is one of the phytonutrients found in raw buckwheat, and it protects against free radicals and inhibits lipid peroxidation. Rutin also protects against free radical-induced DNA damage, which may have cancer protective benefits.2 Buckwheat has been found to be higher in antioxidant activity than barley, oats, wheat and rye. Animals fed a buckwheat-enriched diet showed an increased activity in antioxidant enzymes, such as superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase.1 

Buckwheat’s Anti-inflammatory Support

Eating common buckwheat in place of other gluten-free grains has been found to significantly reduce circulating levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as interferon gamma and monocyte chemotactic protein-1 in human participants with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.4  In animal models, buckwheat sprout extract has been found to reduce inflammation by down-regulating tumor necrosis factor α (TNF-alpha) and interleukin IL-6.2

Cardiovascular Support 

Consuming buckwheat or foods enriched with buckwheat has been shown to support healthy cholesterol levels, and support healthy blood pressure, vascular health and proper blood flow.1

Blood Sugar Balance

Epidemiological research has found that including buckwheat in the diet can lower post-prandial blood sugar concentrations and reduce the overall prevalence of type 2 diabetes.1-2 Furthermore, consumption may increase satiety by influencing post-prandial satiety hormones.1

Cancer Protection

In addition to the protective benefits of reducing overall inflammation and the protective effects of its antioxidant compounds, buckwheat extract has been found to inhibit tumor cell proliferation and may induce apoptosis, or programmed cell death in mice. In humans, consumption is associated with a reduced risk for lung cancer.2

Digestive Support

A small randomized, crossover trial found that participants experiencing symptoms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity reported significant improvement in symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and abdominal “heaviness” when they switched their current gluten free diet for a buckwheat-based gluten free diet. Symptoms resumed in severity when patients resumed their normal gluten free diet, suggesting that it may improve digestive symptoms in those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. In addition, the fiber in buckwheat acts as a prebiotic in the digestive tract, supporting digestive health.1

Liver Health Support 

Buckwheat has been found to increase circulating levels of glutathione, an important detoxification molecule.1 Sprouted buckwheat extract was found to protect animals against fatty liver when fed a high fat diet.2

Both emerging research and traditional medicine support its inclusion in the diet for its nutrient profile and potential health benefits.

Did you like this article?

  1. Gimenez-Batida JA, Zielinski H. (2015). Buckwheat as a functional food and its effects on health. J Agric Food Chem(63):7896-7913.
  2. Jing R, Li HQ, Hu CL, et al. (2016). Phytochemical and pharmacological profiles of three fagopyrum buckwheats. Int J Mol Sci. (17)589.
  3. Al-Snafi AE.(2017, March) A review on Fagopyrum esculentum: a potential medicinal plant. IOSR Journal of Pharmacy. 7(3):21-32.
  4. Dinu M, Macchia D, Pagliai G, et. al. (2017). Symptomatic efficacy of buckwheat products in non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NGSG). Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 26(4):630-636.

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