The fruits of the plants belonging to the grass family (Gramineae) are known as cereal grains. It is interesting to note that several thousand years back, wheat, one of the most widely used cereal grains, went through impulsive transformations or metamorphosis resulting in this grass plant to hold onto its seeds instead of dispersing them to the wind. From the viewpoint of the grass' own production, this modification was in no way in the interest of the wheat plant, but it made it possible for humans to store the seeds for use during winter, when most food is scarce. The compactness of calories in the wheat grains helped to avoid hunger or malnourishment and, therefore, this cereal grain played a vital role in the history of mankind globally. On the other hand, the Chinese succeeded in domestication rice, another prominent cereal grain, approximately 6,500 years back, and during the New World people domesticated or cultivated corn around 3,500 years in the past.
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Although the several cereal grains were domesticated and widely consumed worldwide, till the last century most of them were eaten in the form of 'whole' grains'. Plainly speaking, this means that people left the kernels of the cereal grains as a whole, without divesting them of their vitamins, fiber and minerals. Therefore, the whole grains supply us with protein, fiber, minerals, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, phytates, lignans as well as different other phytochemicals. While the germ of the grain encloses vitamins that are soluble in fat, the husk or bran of the grains contains phytochemicals and B vitamins. Hence, it is quite natural that the grains and food products prepared with them contain very low amount of fat.
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There are several ways in which whole grains can be consumed. They may be consumed plain like hot cereals, added to baked foods, made use of in pilafs (a spiced rice dish prepared with vegetable or meat) and also eaten in numerous different ways. In fact, cereal grains are used in several hundred food products - the primary two being bread and pasta. In fact, cereal grains are a staple diet in almost all the cultures globally, right from couscous (a type of pasta) in North Africa to soba (noodles prepared with buckwheat) in Japan. Literally speaking, cereal grains and food products prepared with them actually supply most of the calories and a large portion of the proteins consumed by people across the globe.
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As mentioned earlier, grains are basically seeds of plants belonging to the grass family. While the grains that are consumed by humans belong to an assortment of botanical families, they possess the same fundamental structure as well as enclose the elements, from which they start growing. The three basic components of the grains - bran, endosperm and germ, are mentioned briefly below.
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Generally, cereal grains are milled or polished prior to using them as food. In other words, milling the grains denotes that they are passed through a process where the bran as well as any husk enclosing the seed of the grain, together with the nourishments enclosed by them, are separated. Subsequently, the seeds are pulverized in a process that converts them into flour or different products. In fact, the name as well as the use of the product often depends on the amount of bran left in the flour. For instance, it is possible to mill wheat into whole-grain flours that enclose all components of the seed. However, in the West, people mostly use refined or processed flours, which only enclose the endosperm, while the bran and husk are got rid of together with most of the nutrients in the grain.
It is possible to mill almost all grains and turn them into products like bread, pasta, and cereal - the staple foods globally with different degrees of success conditional on the chemistry of the grain. From history, we have learnt which grains work best and in which amalgamations.
The grain protein contains gluten and it is responsible for providing bread with its bouncy quality. Gluten actually becomes stretchy and congeals when any liquid is added to flour and the blend is kneaded. The gas formed due to this process or distillation of the carbohydrate present in the flour is ensnared by the dough, resulting in the gluten to draw out and, hence, facilitates the bread to puff up. Since both wheat and rye enclose the maximum amounts of gluten, flour prepared from these two grains has established to be the most appropriate for making bread. Other cereal grains, for instance, corn, enclose much less amount of gluten and, hence, food products made with corn are generally flakier.
In majority of the countries, the maximum percentage of cultivable land is used for growing grains. In effect, for most people across the globe, crops like rice, wheat, corn, oats, barley and millet form the vital component of their diet. Of all cereal grains, wheat is the most extensively cultivated grain. However, as it is possible to cultivate and harvest multiple crops of rice in a year in the tropical climatic regions, cultivation of rice matches that of wheat in terms of quantity every year.
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