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Buckwheat. Photo: <a href="">David-O</a>, CC <a href="">some rights reserved</a>
Buckwheat. Photo: David-O, CC some rights reserved

Natural Selections: Buckwheat, the un-wheat

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We use buckwheat flour for many of the same purposes as wheat flour, but the plants they originate from are not even closely related. And that's a good thing for people who suffer from gluten allergies.

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Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that prevents people from eating wheat. But they can consume buckwheat. Dr. Curt Stager of Paul Smith’s College says buckwheat is an example of a common name that doesn’t accurately reflect what the plant is related to: “The term buckwheat makes you think, well, it’s a kind of wheat, which would be a cereal grain.”

Buckwheat is used to make foods like pancakes, but Stager says it’s not a grain at all. Instead, it’s the seeds of a plant that doesn’t physically resemble wheat, oats or barley—those are all grasses.

“The term buckwheat is actually a corruption of an old Anglo-Saxon term for beach, so it’s like ‘beach wheat.’” Buckwheat resembles a wildflower, and the seeds give it its name; they are three-sided and look like beach nuts.

Buckwheat is a member of a large group of plants that also includes dock, sorrel, Japanese knotweed and rhubarb. Many of these plants have the same type of toxic oxalic acid crystals in their leaves. Rhubarb is known for this, and Stager says, “When you eat rhubarb stems and sugar, you get this kind of gritty taste on your teeth and that’s the little crystals. There’s a lot more of that and other nasty stuff in the leaves.”

The stalks of these plants can be eaten, but not the leaves. If eaten in small amounts, the plants are not poisonous. All members of this group of plants contain oxalic acid. These plants differ from wheat because they are not a type of grass. Wheat also contains gluten in its seeds.

For people who can’t eat gluten, buckwheat flour is a viable alternative to wheat. Soba noodles are also edible since they don’t contain wheat flour.


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