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We have just written a book called The Good Carbs Cookbook to share our enthusiasm for the plant foods the natural world provides us with: fruits, vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, seeds, nuts and grains and to try and answer the many questions we have received over the years from our GI News readers.

Good carbohydrates

Homo sapiens has been going with the grain for a long time. Food diaries weren’t around, so we can’t put a date on when our forebears began pounding and grinding the tough little seeds they gathered, adding a bit of water and making gruel or porridge or kneading dough to bake bread, but it was long before they became farmers.

How do we know? Our genes provide evidence for this. “We have evolved multiple copies of the salivary amylase gene, AMY1, which kicks off the digestion of starch in cooked foods. AMY1 has no other function. Amylase cannot act on raw starch, only starch that has been gelatinised by the action of heat and water,” says Prof Jennie Brand-Miller in the foreword to The Good Carbs Cookbook.

Digging around in buried villages gives us an idea of the wide range of foods our forebears ate. For example, in the remains of the 23,000-year-old lakeshore camp now submerged under the Sea of Galilee (Ohalo II, in present-day Israel), scientists found charred seeds and bones revealing that the people who spent much of the year there hunted gazelle and fallow deer, and occasionally fox, hare and wild pig; fished in the lake and caught migratory birds – the great crested grebe a great favourite if bone count is any indication. And they gathered grains including wild barley, wheat and oats, as the scientists found these seeds all over the campsite along with a grinding stone with starchy traces of barley. They also ate acorns, legumes and wild fruit, and they may have used their hearth to bake bread.

“Seeds are our most durable and concentrated foods. They are the rugged lifeboats designed to carry a plant’s offspring to the shore of an uncertain future. Tease apart a whole grain, or bean, or nut, and inside you find a tiny embryonic shoot,” says Harold McGhee. Which explains why they are so nourishing: they are a baby plant’s healthy pantry.

Grains are at their most nourishing when we eat them as whole as possible or as the
minimally processed staples our forebears enjoyed. Milling and refining grains to separate and remove the bran and germ does give us a more shelf-stable and quicker-cooking product, but it lacks many of the vitamins, minerals, fats and fibre of the original grain.

Minimally processed wholegrains figure prominently in the diets of the long-living Blue Zones folks, and observational studies around the world suggest that eating plenty of these staples may reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, which is why health professionals tend to worship at the altar of wholegrains and “consume more wholegrains’’ features prominently in dietary guidelines worldwide.

So, if we really want to “go paleo”, we should probably eat a much wider variety of seeds than we currently do. To help you do this, try a spiced grain salad like the one from Drake’s at Bondi Beach shown in the photograph above. It contains quinoa, farro, freekeh, popped wild rice, pomegranate seeds, labneh, coriander leaves and secret ingredients …


The Good Carbs Cookbook
The Good Carbs Cookbook: Available online and in store in Australia now. Publishes 13 July in the UK and can be pre-ordered online from Amazon and Book Depository. It should also be available on for interested US readers to pre-order from June 1.