Bread, pasta, cereal, popcorn, oatmeal and tortillas are a few of the many examples of foods made from grains! There are a variety of grain types that make up the majority of our population's diet. In fact, humans get around 48% of their calories and food energy from grain products! A grain product is any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or other cereal grains. Grains are also divided into 2 subgroups: whole grains and refined grains. Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel whereas refined grains have been milled, giving it a finer texture and longer shelf life. Whole grains tend to have more dietary fiber, iron, and vitamins, meaning those who consume whole grains have reduced health risks, higher nutrient intakes, and lead to better health.
Grains can be grown in almost any climate, but some types grow best in different seasons. Rye, for example, is called a winter grain as it can withstand cold, wet climates. Corn, however, typically grows best in warm weather and is considered a summer grain. All grains are annual plants, which means they only have one growing season per year. They only yield one crop and are harvested from dead or dry grasses. Some grains have different varieties that grow best in very different areas. Wheat varieties, like Hard Red Spring, Hard Red Winter, and Durum, grow best in northern areas of the United States. Other varieties like Hard Red Winter, Hard White Winter, and Soft Red Winter grow best in the great plains region of the U.S.. Different wheat varieties require different planting seasons as well, with some being planted in the fall and others in the spring. Wheat has been the principal cereal crop since the early 18th century and is used for the majority of the carbs we ingest today such as white bread, pasta, pizza, and pastries.
Did you know that oats used to be a popularly grown crop in Iowa? In recent generations, it’s gone down in interest and is typically grown on smaller family farms. Oats are grown in the summer or autumn and grow best when planted in drier soils. The planting process is similar to wheat, where they are planted in the summer or early autumn and the seeds stay dormant through the winter. Oats are typically grown in the northern regions as it thrives in cold weather.
Barley, like oats and wheat, grows well in cooler weather. Winter barley should be planted in October whereas spring barley should be planted in January. Barley is also a cover crop, meaning it helps slow erosion, improve soil health, and reap plenty of benefits for farmers!
Rice, however, is one of the different types of grains. This semi-aquatic plant requires consistent irrigation all season. Planted in late winter through spring and grow to around three to four feet over an average of 120 days after planting. The form of irrigation necessary for rice's growth depends on the farmers' preferences. Some farmers flood rice fields while others use irrigation systems, like poy-tubing, for constant watering. Water must be drained from the fields once the crop reaches maturation where they are then dried after harvest.
All of these grains can be used to create edible grain products such as being ground into flour. While grains are certainly important parts of our diets, they have many other purposes as well. A third of the world’s grain supply is used to feed animals. Feed products for livestock like cows, pigs, and chickens as well as pets like cats and dogs are rich in grains and grain products. A large portion of oats produced are used in animal feeds. Another portion of the world’s grain supply is used in the manufacture of industrial products. Biodiesel, for example, is a food used for vehicles. Ethanol, a form of biodiesel, is made from corn! Barley is most often used as a source of malt for alcoholic beverages. Lotions and cosmetics are often derived from oats. Cooking oils, plastics, and syrups can also be made from grains.
Overall, grain is a necessary crop that is used for a multitude of products. From bread to plastics to fuel, grain is an extremely versatile crop essential for today’s economy.