Buckwheat (buckwheat) is a resilient plant – capable of growing even in cold areas and on infertile soils – and yet still underutilized, albeit precious for nutrition and naturally gluten-free. An excellent alternative to wheat and other cereals, for people allergic to them as in cases of celiac disease.
1) Buckwheat, the gluten-free 'wheat not wheat'
Despite the name, buckwheat is not a true cereal but apseudo-cereals' – such as amaranth and quinoa, which are also gluten-free – since they do not belong to the Graminaceous family (about 9.000 species including wheat, oats, barley, rye, rice, corn), despite having similar characteristics from a nutritional point of view. What is consumed, for example, are not the seeds but the fruits – the achenes for buckwheat, the kernels for cereals – which have an endosperm rich in starch, with an appreciable content of proteins and fibers present in the exterior of the fruit.
The origin of this plant is located in China and Central Asia, but it has also spread in cold environments, especially in the mountains (e.g. Russia, the first global producer with 71,6 K t in 2021, data World Bank). As well as the farro, buckwheat is capable of adapting to infertile and marginal soils, unsuitable for the most widespread food crops. It lends itself easily to cultivation with organic methods and is rich in nutrients and bioactive substances, with excellent potential for integrating human nutrition in the name of biodiversity. (1) With the only peculiarity of requiring specific agricultural practices and technologies, in the harvesting phase, due to its generally gradual maturation.
2) Buckwheat, botanical classification
The scientific name of buckwheat is Fagopyrum spp. (from fagus, beech, e pyron, wheat), due to the shape of the fruit which is similar to the beechnuts of the beech tree. It belongs to the Polygonaceae family and includes just under 30 species (with related subspecies), with base chromosome number x = 8, generally diploid (2n = 16), but also tetraploid (2n = 32). The species of buckwheat they are divided into annuals and polyennials. The most famous ones follow.
2.1) Annual species
- Buckwheat is edible Moench. It is the common buckwheat, typically referred to by the name buckwheat. F. esculentum ssp. ancestral is the common wild buckwheat, from which the cultivated one derives (F. esculentum spp. esculentum).
- Fagopyrum tataricum L. (synonym Fagopyrum suffruticosum Schmidt). It is also known as 'Siberian buckwheat' and is in turn distinguished in wild (F. Tataricum spp. Potanini) and cultivated (F. Tataricum spp. tataricum).
- Fagopyrum homotropicum Ohnishi. Native to China, from Tibet to Yunnan and Sichuan, it grows mainly in the temperate biome.
2.2) Perennial species
- Fagopyrum cymosum Meissn. It is a domesticated plant with proven uses in pharmaceuticals and in the Traditional Chinese Medicine, also used as feed and as an ornamental plant, genetically close to F. esculentum e F. Tataricum.
- Fagopyrum urophyllum Gross. A cross-pollinated perennial woody shrub species, belonging to the group of the same name urophyllum of the genus Fagopyrum (the other main group is the cymosum, to which the above species belong). The natural populations of F. urophyllum they have been morphologically classified into two distinct groups, the Dali group and the Kunming group.
2.3) Common names
Common names of buckwheat, in various areas of the planet, are different. Grecicha kulfurnaya in Russia, jawas in pakistan, ogal in India, mild phapar in nepal, room in Japan, poganka in Poland, buckwheat in Germany, phagopiro in Italy, buckwheat in France. (2)
3) Buckwheat, nutritional values
Nutritional values of buckwheat are worthy of particular attention for those who are forced to follow a gluten-free diet (the only possible one for coeliacs) but also for the general population.
Proteins in buckwheat they are present in variable quantities depending on the cultivate, between 8,5% and 18,8%. 12,3% the average of buckwheat common, 13,15% that of the Siberian (F. Tataricum. Sophie et al., 2022. See Fig. 1). The supply of amino acids is balanced, with a prevalence of arginine, aspartic acid and lysine. Wealth into Lysine increases the amino acid score (ie PDCAAS, Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score), compared to cereals, with greater bioavailability in the intestine.
3.2) Carbohydrates, fibers, fats
Carbohydrates. Starch is the main macronutrient present in buckwheat achene (54,5 – 70%), which is an excellent source of resistant starch, whose concentration is the highest among all pseudocereals, equaling the same cereals and legumes.
Fiber. The dietary fibers, concentrated in the husks of buckwheat, are much higher than in other pseudocereals. Their concentration varies according to the degree of grinding, from about 24% in buckwheat 10-11% wholemeal in the hulled version, up to 7% in the form of semolina.
Fat. The lipid concentration in buckwheat is low (1,5 – 3,7%), with a preponderance of unsaturated fatty acids (MUFA, Mono-Unsaturated Fatty Acids). Predominantly palmitic, oleic and linoleic acid (88%).
3.3) Vitamins and minerals
The main vitamins contained in buckwheat are vitamins A, C, E and various vitamins of group B (e.g. thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine).
And minerals they are present in appreciable quantities, in both categories of macroelements (e.g. phosphorus, potassium, magnesium. Iron, zinc and manganese are instead present in low concentrations) and microelements.
The micronutrients contained in buckwheat, very present in the external fractions of the fruit, are an excellent supplement for celiac subjects, whose gluten-free diets are often poor in vitamins and minerals.
4) Bioactive substances and health benefits
Il buckwheat it is a concentrated source of bioactive compounds which include peptides with anti-microbial, hypotensive, anti-inflammatory and thus anti-diabetic, anti-cholesterolemic, anti-obesogenic and anti-tumor action. This action is promoted by the antioxidant activity of the flavonoids and phenolic acids, which also help improve the shelf life of the achenes during storage and marketing.
Routine – a flavonoid present only in buckwheat, among pseudocereals – also helps to increase the dilation of blood vessels, prevent heart problems. In addition to protecting the skin from UV rays, among other benefits. Phagopyritols (in particular B1) and d-fagomin are sugars which in turn contribute to these health functions, and their concentration can increase with the sprouting of the achenes.
5) Nutrition and health claims
EU Food and Feed Information Portal Database reports only one entry about buckwheat. A health claim on the role of one of its extracts in boosting the immune system, unauthorized since it was assessed by EFSA as general and non-specific. (3)
The average energy value of buckwheat (343 Kcal/100 g) and its proximal composition suggest the possibility of using some nutrition claims, after analyzing the products derived from it, such as:
6) Buckwheat-based foods
Some buckwheat-based foods are rooted in people's cultures, others are undergoing research and development, also to respond to the growing demand for gluten-free products. And so:
- pasta. The noodles room, in the macrobiotic tradition of Japan, are made with buckwheat pure organic. Italy, leader European in the production of foods for celiacs, in turn produces various pasta shapes 100% gluten-free buckwheat, often organic,
- bread, baked goods. The use of buckwheat is also growing in the production of gluten-free bread and bakery products. Recipes often include legume flours (e.g. chickpeas) and cereals or pseudo-cereals gluten-free, to mitigate the slightly bitter taste of the buckwheat and give structure to the product,
- snacks, breakfast cereals, meat analogues. Extrusion allows the nutritional and health benefits of buckwheat to be altered to a minimum, increasing its digestibility. It lends itself to realisation snack, breakfast cereals, modified flours, textured vegetable proteins, meat analogues and starchy products (e.g. soups, polenta),
- beverages. The roasted and pulverized buckwheat achenes allow you to create a gluten-free alternative to soluble barley, for hot drinks alternative to coffee. That is, infusions, enriched in routine with the addition of flowers and leaves of the plant (or some by-products such as the skins removed during the husking phase, with a view to upcycling). The malt of buckwheat allows you to make beers gluten-free, of which the lack of offer in version is noted among other things '0% alcohol'.
6.1) Traditions'Made in Italy'
I 'pizzoccheri of Valtellina IGP' (Protected Geographical Indication, or PGI, Protected Geographical Indication) are a dry pasta made in the Province of Sondrio (Lombardy, Northern Italy), where the presence of buckwheat has been recorded since 1600. Their dough includes at least 20% buckwheat (F. esculentum), in addition to durum wheat. (5)
Polenta taragna (from 'tarai', a dialectal term that identifies the long wooden stick with which you 'tare', i.e. turn the polenta in the copper pot) is another characteristic dish of the Valtellina. A thick cream of only buckwheat with corn, gluten-free and possibly organic, creamed according to tradition at the end of cooking with butter and cheese (or with cream, clean n'fiù).
The register of traditional agri-food products (PAT) in Italy reports the production of buckwheat, especially in Northern Italy:
- Lombardy. Buckwheat flour, buckwheat cake,
- Piedmont. Buckwheat,
- Autonomous Province of Bolzano (Trentino Alto-Adige). buckwheat flour (buckwheat flour),
- Tuscany. Buckwheat/fagopiro/black wheat,
- Veneto. Buckwheat. (6)
6.2) Principals Slow Food
Slow Food maintains 3 presidia that describe the rooted and centuries-old use of buckwheat in tradition in Italy:
- Valtellina (Lombardy). The 'Siberian buckwheat' (furmentùn, black fraina in the dialect of Sondrio) is used to produce pizzoccheri and polenta taragna (clean mugna, if mixed with other flours). Other dishes are the sloppy and kisheul, a pancake and a focaccia stuffed with cheese (generally Casera DOP), (7)
- Valnerina (Umbria). Another garrison slow food, in Central Italy, with evidence of cultivation in medieval times for food and medicinal uses. Widely consumed in the form of soup with lentils, (8)
- Terragnolo (Trentino Alto-Adige). Buckwheat, known since the XNUMXth century under the name 'formentom', is used to prepare black polenta but also the childish, a characteristic local bread which is cooked in a pan with lard (9,10).
7) Any contraindications
Like most of the foods of plant originbuckwheat also has some anti-nutritional factors and 'side effects', which are often compensated by the health benefits and in some cases can be mitigated with certain technologies (e.g. fermentation, cooking) and/or combinations with other ingredients. In the specific case:
- tannins and protease inhibitors can reduce the digestibility of proteins, by binding directly to them or by interfering with the action of digestive enzymes (eg trypsins, chemotrypsins). Both at the same time have beneficial effects, exercising positive actions for health (e.g. antimicrobial and anticarcinogenic activity),
- fagopyrines can cause photosensitivity (a phenomenon known as 'fagopyrism') and isolated allergic reactions in predisposed subjects, as well as being laxatives. (11) In turn, they exert beneficial actions for health (ie antimicrobial, antiviral, antidiabetic).
8) Provisional conclusions
The opportunity to cultivate buckwheat, especially in an organic regime, deserves consideration especially in areas not very suited to the main cereal crops. The use of buckwheat in the production of gluten-free foods e plant based foods it allows its valorisation in important market segments. With the added value of nutritional properties and health benefits linked to the quantity and quality of proteins, amino acids, resistant starch and dietary fibres, as well as numerous bioactive compounds.
Dario Dongo and Andrea Adelmo Della Penna
(1) Sophie et al. (2022). Nutritional and bioactive characteristics of buckwheat, and its potential for developing gluten-free products: An updated overview. Food Sci. Nutr. 11:2256–2276, https://doi.org/10.1002/fsn3.3166
(2) Ohsako & Li (2020). Classification and systematics of the Fagopyrum species. Breeding science 70: 93-100, https://doi.org/10.1270/jsbbs.19028
(3) EFSA NDA Panel (2011). Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to various food(s)/food constituent(s) and health relationships that are not sufficiently defined (…); are not referring to a function of the body (…); are related to the prevention or treatment of a disease (…); are not referring to a beneficial physiological effect (…) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006. https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2011.2228 EFSAJournal 9 (6): 2228
(5) Production regulations for Pizzoccheri della Valtellina PGI. https://www.politicheagricole.it/flex/cm/pages/ServeAttachment.php/L/IT/D/b%252F6%252Fc%252FD.37f80d6f79d799b537db/P/BLOB%3AID%3D3348/E/pdf?mode=download
(6) Italy, Ministry of Agriculture (MASAF). List of PAT (Traditional Agri-Food Products), revision 23 https://www.politicheagricole.it/flex/cm/pages/ServeBLOB.php/L/IT/IDPagina/19693
(7) Slow Food. Buckwheat from Valtellina https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/it/arca-del-gusto-slow-food/grano-saraceno-della-valtellina/
(8) Slow Food. Valnerina buckwheat https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/it/presidi-slow-food/grano-sareceno-della-valnerina/
(9) Slow Food. Terragnolo buckwheat https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/it/presidi-slow-food/grano-saraceno-di-terragnolo/
(10) Slow Food. Fanzelto https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/it/arca-del-gusto-slow-food/fanzelto/
(11) The incidence of serious allergic reactions to buckwheat can be estimated at 0,1-1 cases per 1 million people per year. Norback & Wieslander (2021). A Review on Epidemiological and Clinical Studies on Buckwheat Allergy. plants 10(3):607. https://doi.org/10.3390/plants10030607