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Rye Facts and Uses: A Nutritious, Tasty, and Healthy Grain

Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.

Dark rye crispbread and a topping

Dark rye crispbread and a topping

An Interesting and Useful Grain

Wheat is the most common grain in many North American families, while rice is the runner-up. Many other tasty and healthy grains are available in stores, including rye. Rye is a grain that definitely deserves people's attention. It's very popular in some parts of the world, where it replaces wheat as the primary grain in people's diet. It’s more flavorful than wheat and may have some interesting health benefits.

In this article, I discuss:

  • rye plants and products,
  • uses of the grain,
  • possible health benefits of rye,
  • nutrient content,
  • fiber types and effects on cholesterol,
  • gluten content, and
  • tips for adding rye to the diet.

Plants, Kernels, Flakes, and Flour

Rye's scientific name is Secale cereale. The plant belongs to the grass family, or the Poaceae. The family is sometimes known by its older name of Gramineae. Rye is grown extensively in eastern and northern Europe and is a popular grain in these areas. It's also grown in Canada and the United States. It tolerates poorer soils than wheat and is more resistant to drought and frost. The kernels or berries range in color from yellow-brown to green-gray, depending on the variety of the plant.

The grain is sold as kernels, flakes, and a flour. The kernels can be boiled in water to make a nourishing breakfast. Flakes are quicker to cook when someone is in a rush in the morning, though. The cooked kernels can also be added to the main course of a meal. They are good in soups, stews, casseroles, and stuffing. Kernels can be ground at home to make fresh flour, or the flour can be bought in a store.

Rye flakes on the left and kernels (or berries) on the right

Rye flakes on the left and kernels (or berries) on the right

Quality of the Flour

Rye flour is a useful ingredient in a kitchen. It's a great addition to baked goods, either on its own or when it's mixed with another flour. All flour should be stored in a cool place. The best type is made by grinding intact grains at home with a grain mill. Nutrients are lost once intact grains are ground and stored. Hand crank grain mills are cheaper than electric mills and are useful when making small to medium amounts of flour. If a large amount of flour needs to be made, an electric grain mill will be easier to use.

There may be grain growers in your area that grind their own grain. They can be a good source of recently ground flour if you don't create your own. You may also find a reasonably fresh product at farmers markets and in health food markets. Rye flour in regular stores is still worth buying even if it hasn't been freshly ground.

Dark rye bread and marmalade

Dark rye bread and marmalade

Dark and Light Rye Flour Uses

The products most commonly made from rye, at least in my part of the world, are bread and crispbread. Rye bread comes in a dark version and a light one. The dark bread is made from the whole grain. It has a dense texture and an assertive taste, which some people love and others dislike. The light bread is made from kernels that have had their outer layer (or bran) removed. It sometimes contains refined wheat as well. It has a lighter color and texture and a gentler taste than the dark product.

A special type of dark rye bread is pumpernickel bread. Traditional pumpernickel bread is made from a coarse, whole grain rye flour or meal as well as kernels of the grain. It's a sourdough product that is slowly fermented with a natural yeast culture that is maintained at the bakery. The bread is thought to have originated in Germany.

Pumpernickel bread bought in many stores may not be traditional. It sometimes contains molasses to make it look dark and may contain wheat flour as well as rye. It may also be made with a commercial yeast. Some people prefer the lighter taste of this modified bread. It can still be nutritious, depending on how much rye it contains and on its other ingredients.

In North America, rye bread and crispbread are found in many food stores. Crispbread is a thin, dry product that resembles a cracker. Like the bread, the crispbread comes in light and dark varieties.

Other Uses of the Plant

Rye is also used to make alcoholic beverages, including beer, whisky, and vodka. Both the grain and the green plant are used as food for farm animals. The straw created from the stalks of the plant has been used to create thatch for roofs and items such as baskets.

Possible Health Benefits of Rye

White or refined grains are lighter in color than whole grains because the dark, outer layer of bran has been removed. Researchers know that white wheat is less healthy for us than whole grain wheat. "The whiter the bread, the sooner you're dead" is a popular saying amongst people concerned about nutrition. The situation may not be so simple with respect to rye. White rye may have benefits that white wheat lacks.

Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have made some interesting discoveries with respect to rye and health.

  • The researchers fed people either white rye or a combination of white wheat and rye bran. The people who ate white rye experienced a better blood insulin and blood sugar level than the people fed wheat and bran.
  • The researchers also found that white rye bread or whole grain rye porridge gave people a better feeling of satiety (fullness) than white wheat bread. The porridge produced the best effect.
  • Another discovery was that people who ate boiled rye kernels for breakfast not only felt fuller than people who ate white wheat bread but also ate 16% less for lunch in terms of energy intake.
  • Another researcher fed mice either whole grain wheat or whole grain rye for six months. The mice that were fed wheat gained "significantly" more weight than the mice fed rye. The research may or may not apply to humans.

While the research described above is interesting, it would be nice to see it confirmed by other scientists. Dietary studies can be difficult in humans. Whole grain rye certainly seems to be a healthy grain. The points that need to be confirmed are whether it has benefits that other whole grains lack and whether white rye has benefits that white wheat lacks. It’s probably better to stick to the whole grain form of rye for now, unless this form causes problems or is unavailable locally.

Location and Variety

Swedish researchers have raised the possibility that rye grown in different areas or rye of different varieties may have different effects on health. These are other important factors to investigate.

Nutritional Benefits of Whole Grain Rye Flakes

A more recent article from WebMD summarizes the nutritional and potential health benefits of whole grain rye flakes. The article was reviewed by a medical doctor. The article mentions that rye is rich in potassium and that it’s an excellent source of magnesium, zinc, iron, vitamin E, vitamin B6, and some other nutrients. It doesn’t contain vitamin B12, which isn't present in plants. Rye also contains substances known as phytonutrients, which are sometimes called phytochemicals. These are believed to have a variety of beneficial effects in our body.

The article states that rye ingestion can increase the level of the “good” HDL cholesterol and lower the level of the “bad” LDL cholesterol, which I describe in more detail below. It can also help to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure and control weight. It’s important to remember that many aspects of our health depend on multiple factors. If we eat rye but also eat a lot of high-calorie foods we are unlikely to lose weight, for example. Nevertheless, if we are trying to improve or maintain our health, eating rye could be useful.

A Rye Poll

Dietary Fiber Types and Their Effects

Whole grain rye contains both soluble and insoluble fiber, which each have specific benefits.

Insoluble Fiber

Insoluble fiber is located mainly in the bran of a grain. This type of fiber bulks up the stool and speeds its passage through the intestine, preventing constipation. It may also reduce the incidence of colon cancer, although this hasn't been proved. Many surveys show that people who follow a diet high in insoluble fiber have a lower risk of colon cancer, but some show no link between the two factors. Rye's insoluble fiber is partially degraded by bacteria living in the large intestine, providing compounds that are thought to be beneficial for our health.

Soluble Fiber and Effects on Cholesterol

Soluble fiber forms a gel when it joins with water in the small intestine. This gel has been shown to reduce the amount of LDL cholesterol in the blood. It also improves the blood glucose (or blood sugar) level.

Cholesterol is an essential substance in the cell membrane. It‘s transported in our blood in different forms, which are all necessary in our lives. The type known as LDL cholesterol can be problematic if our bodies contain more of the substance than we need, however. In this molecule, the cholesterol is carried by a low-density lipoprotein as opposed to the high-density one in HDL cholesterol. An excessive amount of the LDL form can contribute to blocked blood vessels as well as heart attacks and strokes.

Familial Hypercholesterolemia

Anyone with concerns about cholesterol should contact a health expert. Another factor to consider is that although all of us should think about the topic, some people have a harder time dealing with cholesterol than others. One of my former students had a condition known as familial hypercholesterolemia, which is a genetic disorder in which a person has a problem getting rid of LDL cholesterol from their body.

Sprouted grain rye bread

Sprouted grain rye bread

Gluten Content

Rye contains gluten and isn't safe for people who have celiac disease. When people with this disease eat or drink a product containing gluten, the villi on the lining of their small intestine are damaged or destroyed. Villi are tiny folds that increase the surface area for nutrient absorption. Without villi, the body can't obtain enough nutrients.

Gluten is a protein composite found in modern wheat and its relatives, including spelt, kamut, emmer, and einkorn. It's also present in barley, rye, and triticale. Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye. The gluten in wheat makes bread dough elastic and gives the baked bread a light, springy texture. The gluten in rye has a different composition from wheat gluten, but it's still dangerous for people who have celiac disease.

Warning

Since rye contains gluten, it must never be eaten by someone with celiac disease, even if the grain has been sprouted.

Dark Rye or Light Rye?

Tips for Adding Rye to Your Diet

Rye flakes cook quickly. You may not find them in a supermarket or a regular grocery store. I get mine from a health food market. You could mix the flakes with rolled oats in the proportion that suits your taste buds. Adding milk (dairy or non-dairy), fruit, and a sweetener—preferably a healthier one than refined sugar—can make a delicious and nutritious porridge for breakfast.

Light rye bread can be bought in many stores. Dark rye bread and pumpernickel bread are often available in delicatessens, health food markets, and artisan bakeries. Rye crispbread is widely available (at least where I live) and is useful for making healthy snacks.

Rye bread is commonly used to make sandwiches with deli meats like ham and corned beef. This might not be a good idea. Processed meats are thought to be harmful if they are eaten too often because of the chemicals added to them, including sodium nitrite. Many other and less controversial sandwich fillings go well with rye bread.

Rye kernels are a great addition to savory meals and are very easy to prepare. They need to cook for forty-five minutes or longer, however. I cook my intact grains in a big batch and then store the unused portions in the refrigerator. I add the cooked grain to my meals over the next few days. Cooked and refrigerated rye stays in good condition for at least four days. I haven't tried keeping it in the refrigerator for any longer than this.

Slices of dark rye sourdough bread

Slices of dark rye sourdough bread

A Worthy Grain

Rye is a regular part of my diet. I usually have it in some form in my kitchen. I do sometimes eat white rye bread and crispbread and appreciate the health benefits that they may provide. I try to make most of my foods whole grain in the hope of getting even more health benefits, however. I also enjoy the hearty taste of whole grain rye, especially when it's used to make bread. I prefer the taste of this bread to a product made from wheat. Rye sourdough bread sandwiches with a nutritious and tasty filling can be both healthy and delicious.

References

  • Facts about the rye plant from the University of Wyoming
  • More information about the plant from The Canadian Encyclopedia
  • Nutrients in rye from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)
  • Rye effects on blood glucose and appetite regulation from Lund University in Sweden via the ScienceDaily news service
  • Health benefits of rye flakes from WebMD
  • LDL cholesterol facts from WebMD
  • Familial hypercholesterolemia information from John Hopkins Medicine
  • Possible health benefits of rye (with links to scientific abstracts) from the Whole Grains Council
  • Facts about whole grains from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Suitable grains for people with celiac disease from the Mayo Clinic

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 24, 2018:

Hi, Manatita. I know when I've had too much wheat, too, although I do better with sprouted wheat. At least where I live, there are quite a lot of vegetarian foods that resemble meat, which I find helpful. Good luck with your search for suitable food.

manatita44 from london on March 24, 2018:

I use Rye sometimes when I feel a little off, like today. It is then that I know I have had too much wheat and possibly sugar. So I visit the health food section at the Supermarket.

I should cook more really. Rye has the gluten and so I go for the things that say 'free this and free that.'

I note it's rich content including protein and again it does taste nice. Alas! I need more fruits. Very hard to shop for vegetarians. I think I'll re-commence the fruits and naturally prepared raw food. Very expensive!!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 06, 2013:

Thank you for such a kind comment, DDE. I appreciate it!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 06, 2013:

Rye - A Tasty Grain With Great Health Benefits, brilliant hub and so well approached. Informative, and useful to all readers. You share informative and helpful hubs to all readers.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 28, 2013:

Thanks, moonlake. I appreciate the visit and the vote.

moonlake from America on March 28, 2013:

I love rye bread, dark is my favorite. I didn't know you could eat rye as a cereal. Voted up.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 26, 2013:

Thank you very much, ryanraff. Welcome to HubPages!

Ryan Rafferty on March 26, 2013:

my first article that I read on this website, and it did not disappoint!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 21, 2013:

Thanks, unknown spy. I appreciate the comment!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 21, 2013:

Thanks for the visit, Susan. It is good to know that rye is healthy!

DragonBallSuper on March 21, 2013:

very informative post!

Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on March 21, 2013:

When given a bread choice I've always picked rye over any other type of bread. Never knew that it was a healthier choice. This is good to know.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 19, 2013:

Thank you very much for the comment, Eddy. I appreciate the vote and the share, too!

Eiddwen from Wales on March 19, 2013:

Interesting and very useful Alicia;a vote up,across and share as always.

Eddy.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 18, 2013:

Yes, buckwheat is one of the grain alternatives recommended for people with celiac disease. I like quinoa, teff and buckwheat, but teff is expensive, so I don't get it very often. Sorghum and amaranth are also gluten-free.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on March 18, 2013:

Oh, my gosh, I used to adore buckwheat! I can really have it again? I have whole grain quinoa that I make like rice.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 18, 2013:

Hi, Deb. Quinoa, teff and buckwheat are gluten-free, if you'd like to try these. (Buckwheat isn't related to wheat, despite its name.) These could give you some variety if you can find them and if you like them. Thanks for the visit!

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on March 18, 2013:

I wish I could eat this. I have a wheat allergy, so I stay gluten free. I eat brown rice bread, but would like something else for a change, other than millet.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 18, 2013:

Thank you so much for the comment and the vote, Joanne. I appreciate them both!

Joanne M Olivieri on March 18, 2013:

I eat rye bread on a regular basis basically because I have always liked it. I never really knew about all the health benefits connected to rye. This hub was an eye opener and a fantastic informational hub. Voted Up.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 17, 2013:

Thank you very much, Om! I appreciate the visit and the comment. It's certainly worth trying different forms of rye. It's an interesting grain.

Om Paramapoonya on March 17, 2013:

What a great hub! I heard that rye was good for us but didn't really know what its health benefits were exactly. All this info is very interesting. I occasionally eat rye bread, and that's pretty much it. I'll definitely give rye kernels and flour a try sometime, though!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 17, 2013:

Hi, breakfastpop. I like both kinds of rye bread, too. I find rye so much tastier than wheat. Thanks for the visit!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 17, 2013:

Hi, Gypsy48. Yes, I think that many people forget about the rye bread option! Toasted rye bread is delicious. Thanks for the comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 17, 2013:

Thanks for the comment, Martin. It's good to know that something we love to eat also has health benefits!

breakfastpop on March 17, 2013:

I love rye bread, both light and dark. Having said that, I had no idea it was also so healthy.

Gypsy48 on March 17, 2013:

Interesting hub, I love a dark rye myself and think rye bread is sometimes ignored over wheat bread. Rye bread is great for sandwiches and I like it toasted for breakast with some delicious jam.

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on March 17, 2013:

Thank you for this. I lobe rye bread. I never thought about the health benefits.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 16, 2013:

I much prefer light rye bread to white wheat bread, too, drbj. Like you, I think that the rye bread tastes so much nicer! Thanks for the visit.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on March 16, 2013:

I have always preferred light rye bread to white bread, Alicia, and now I know thanks to your informational hub, I have made the healthier choice. It also tastes much better.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 16, 2013:

Thank you very much for the comment, Bill! I appreciate the vote and the share, too.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on March 16, 2013:

Hi Alicia. Great job explaining all of the benefits of Rye Bread. We eat it occasionally but maybe we should be eating it more often. Very interesting and well written. Voted up, sharing, etc...