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Each month we feature a diﬀerent whole grain on the Whole Grains Council website, including information on its health beneﬁts, cooking tips and recipes, historical/cultural facts, and more. Click to see the full calendar.
In August, two grains – Rye and its cousin Triticale – share the spotlight, drawing attention to the rye harvest that’s underway in Scandinavia where rye is the principal grain consumed.
Rye is a hardy grain crop that was long considered a weed when it ﬁrst appeared in wheat ﬁelds. Over decades and centuries, however, farmers began to realize that rye grows more rapidly than wheat, can withstand submersion during ﬂoods, and continues to thrive during drought. (In fact, rye is sometimes referred to as “the poverty grain” since it will grow on soils too poor for other grains.) Rye therefore became especially popular in colder temperate countries – Russia, Poland, Scandinavia, Canada, Argentina, China, Turkey and elsewhere – where it was too cold or wet for wheat to grow dependably.
In many Western societies, the nobility ate wheat bread, while the peasants ate heavier – but more nutritious – rye bread. Today, new research documents rye’s many nutrition advantages. Triticale (pronounced trih-tih-KAY-lee), a hybrid of wheat and rye, joins rye at center stage this month.
History of Rye and Triticale
Historic evidence of rye cultivation does not go back as far as most other cereal grains, though the grain was certainly familiar by the time of the Greeks and Romans. Two theories exist for the ancestry of modern rye [Secale cereale]: it may have developed from Secale montanum, a Mediterranean-area variety, or from Secale anatolicum, from Turkey across the Balkan peninsula. Either way, rye spread across the European continent, then came to the Americas with European settlers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and ﬁnally spread to South Africa and Australia during the mid-nineteenth century.
Triticale [Triticosecale rimpaui] is a hybrid of wheat [Triticum] and rye [Secale] that is little more than a century old. The main goal in creating triticale was to produce a grain with many of the advantages of wheat for product development – with the ability of rye to thrive in adverse conditions. The ﬁrst wheat/rye cross-breeding occurred in Scotland in 1875, but this crossing was sterile; in 1888, German botanists ﬁrst discovered how to produce a fertile hybrid of the two grains. The name triticale ﬁrst seems to have been used in Germany about 1935. Although great hopes were entertained for triticale, it has been slow to ﬁnd widespread commercial acceptance or demand. However, as it requires few pesticides, reduces soil erosion, and can capture excess soil nitrogen, triticale is especially suited to organic farming and may for that reason be on its way to a shining future.
Click here to see photos of diﬀerent types of rye and learn more.
Health Beneﬁts of Rye and Triticale
Rye is a rich and versatile source of dietary ﬁber, especially a type of ﬁber called arabinoxylan, which is also known for its high antioxidant activity. Rye grain also contains phenolic acids, lignans, alkylresorcinos and many other compounds with potential bioactivities. Research indicates that consuming whole grain rye has many beneﬁts including:
Improved bowel health
Better blood sugar control, and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
Overall weight management, improved satiety (feeling full longer after eating)
Since rye is consumed widely only in a handful of countries, research into its beneﬁts has not been as widespread as that into some other whole grains. Recently, however, Scandinavian researchers have banded together to step up the pace of research into the beneﬁts of rye and of the Nordic diet overall. A ﬁve year project is now underway to document the advantages of certain traditional foods in the Nordic diet, including ﬁsh, lean wild game, berries, oats/rye/barley, and vegetables from the cabbage family
Cooking and Baking with Rye and Triticale
Think rye, and the breads and crispbreads of Scandinavia and Northern Europe come to mind – since so few other grains can grow well in those areas.
On a recent trip to Denmark, we visited a rye bread factory to see how the real stuﬀ is made. First, you soak whole rye berries for hours and hours. Then you add a small amount of sourdough rye culture (rye ﬂour and water, fermented to develop natural yeasts). Then you bake it. That’s it. The only ﬂour in the loaf is the small amount in the sourdough culture; about 90% of the grain is whole rye berries, soaked to soften them so that they’ll hold together in the eventual slices.
Yet breads and crispbreads are not the only foods that can be made with rye. Rye berries can be eaten hot as a side dish or cooked into a pilaf, added to soups, or used as the base for summer salads. Rye berries take about an hour to cook, with cooking time shortened a bit if you soak them overnight.
Many of us have only tasted rye in rye bread, often ﬂavored with caraway seeds, so the ﬂavor we imagine as “rye” is actually that of caraway. Try a range of rye recipes, like these below, and get a sense of the real taste of rye:
French Lamb and Rye Berry Braise
Double-Grain Bean Soup, with Triticale
Pain d’Epices – French Honey Rye Cake
Rye Berries with Cabbage, Walnuts & Toasted Caraway
Classic Pumpernickel Bread
Accordion Rye Rolls
Kalakukko – Traditional Finnish Fish Pie
Rye Crispbread Mini-Pizzas
And last but not least, we invite you to visit the blog titled “Why I Rye” that WGC Program Manager Kara Berrini wrote about her adventures with baking rye bread.
Fun Facts about Rye and Triticale
Russia, Poland and Germany are the top three producers of rye worldwide.
Rye can be infected with the ergot fungus, which can cause hallucinations – and is commonly thought to be a possible cause for the Salem witch accusations in 1692 in Massachusetts. (Luckily, today we know how to check for ergot!)
Rye straw was often used in traditional English thatched roofs, and today (when water reed is used for thatching) rye straw is still used for the ridge, as it’s more ﬂexible than water reed.
Rye grasses (Lolium multiﬂorum or Lolium perenne), common for seeding lawns and for animal forage, are not the same as rye grain (Secale cereale).
Rye starch is frequently used in adhesives and in making matches and plastics.
Kvass is an ancient and much-loved fermented rye beverage from Eastern Europe. Traditionally a low-alcohol (0.5-1%) beer, kvass today is also produced by soft-drink manufacturers in non-alcoholic form. Click here to learn how to make your own kvass.
Washington state is the leading grower of triticale in the U.S.
Thanks to King Arthur Flour and RyeAndHealth.org for some of the information on this page.