When you think of grains you probably think of carbohydrates and dietary fiber, but grains can also be a great source of protein and the amino acids that build it. Whole unrefined grains are higher in protein than refined grains because protein likes to hang out in the bran and germ. Grains high in amino acids include teff, quinoa, whole wheat pasta, wild rice, millet, oatmeal, buckwheat, kamut (wheat berries), and cornmeal. Before we look at the amino acid profile of each, let’s gain a better understanding of the role amino acids play in health.
Amino Acids for Optimal Health
Proteins make up 75% of the human body, and these proteins are formed from 20 amino acids. Protein is really just a string of amino acids linked together in a precise sequence that determines the protein’s function, whether that’s healing and repairing tissue, aiding digestion, generating energy, or protecting against infection and illness. That's how amino acids earned the tagline "the building blocks of protein."
Eleven of these amino acids are called the nonessential amino acids (NEAAs) because the body can produce them itself. The NEAAs are:
- Aspartic Acid
- Glutamic Acid
Nine of these amino acids are called essential amino acids (EAAs) because the body cannot make them. You have to make sure you get your EAAs from your diet, and eating grains is a great way to do this!
Grains High in Amino Acids
While the exact protein content of grains varies, you can typically meet 6-20% of your daily value of protein in 1 cup of cooked whole grains. Let’s start with teff.
Amino Acids in Teff
Teff is a protein-packed, gluten-free grain that can substitute in for wheat and is a good source of resistant starch, which helps to keep your gut healthy and happy. If you’ve ever eaten injera, or Ethiopian flatbread, then you’ve had teff!
1 cup of cooked teff = 9.8 grams of protein:
|Aspartic Acid||602 mg||~|
|Glutamic Acid:||2457 mg||~|
Amino Acids in Quinoa
Quinoa is a pseudocereal and a complete protein with the right amount of all nine of the EAAs, and a hefty amount of iron, potassium, and fiber. It’s even got the lysine that’s missing in many other grains high in amino acids.
1 cup of cooked quinoa = 8.1 grams of protein:
|Aspartic Acid||653 mg||~|
|Glutamic Acid:||1073 mg||~|
Amino Acids in Whole Wheat Pasta
Who knew spaghetti could be so full of protein? You can get 7 grams in a cup of whole wheat pasta without any of the refined grains that spike blood sugar and contribute to weight gain. Whole wheat pasta is also rich in fiber, iron, magnesium, and zinc.
1 cup of cooked whole wheat pasta = 7 grams of protein:
|Aspartic Acid||316 mg||~|
|Glutamic Acid:||2427 mg||~|
Amino Acids in Wild Rice
Wild rice has more protein than other types of rice, containing all nine of the essential amino acids. It’s also lower in calories and has dietary fiber to boot. Fun fact: wild rice is actually not a rice at all but the seed of an aquatic grass!
1 cup of cooked wild rice = 6.5 grams of protein:
|Aspartic Acid||630 mg||~|
|Glutamic Acid:||1140 mg||~|
Amino Acids in Millet
Millet is gluten free, rich in fiber and antioxidants, and a grain high in amino acids. It’s also plentiful in iron, folate, phosphorus, and magnesium, and is a worthwhile grain to have at your cooking disposal.
1 cup of cooked millet = 6.1 grams of protein:
|Aspartic Acid||402 mg||~|
|Glutamic Acid:||1328 mg||~|
Amino Acids in Couscous
Whether you like the taste of traditional couscous or prefer the nutty flavor and chewy texture of pearl couscous you can feel good about feeding your body the amino acids it craves (although it is notoriously low in lysine). It also contains calcium and iron that can be lacking in other grains. Vitamin E, the B vitamins, and fiber make an appearance too!
1 cup of cooked couscous = 6 grams of protein:
|Aspartic Acid||243 mg||~|
|Glutamic Acid:||2146 mg||~|
Amino Acids in Oatmeal
With an amino acid score of 86, oatmeal is not a complete protein, which means it does not contain all the essential amino acids you need to jumpstart muscle growth, but when combined with other high-quality sources of protein, it provides a healthful mix of aminos.
1 cup of cooked oatmeal = 5.9 grams of protein:
|Aspartic Acid||707 mg||~|
|Glutamic Acid:||1458 mg||~|
Amino Acids in Buckwheat
Buckwheat is a pseudocereal, which means it’s a seed that is commonly eaten as a cereal grain. In addition to protein, it’s got a decent amount of fiber, as well as magnesium, manganese, copper, phosphorus, and iron, as well as the antioxidant rutin. It also has a well-balanced amino acid profile.
1 cup of roasted buckwheat grouts = 5.7 grams of protein:
|Aspartic Acid||486 mg||~|
|Glutamic Acid:||877 mg||~|
Amino Acids in Kamut
Kamut, or wheat berries, are the whole and unprocessed form of wheat kernels, and they offer up a hearty dose of B vitamins, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese. And their protein content isn’t too shabby either!
1 cup of cooked kamut = 5.7 grams of protein:
|Aspartic Acid||537 mg||~|
|Glutamic Acid:||3234 mg||~|
Amino Acids in Cornmeal
Low in lysine but with a good amount of leucine, cornmeal holds its own as a high-protein grain, especially when combined with eggs, a complete protein with an ideal ratio of essential amino acids.
1 cup of white cornmeal grits = 4.4 grams of protein:
|Aspartic Acid||252 mg||~|
|Glutamic Acid:||838 mg||~|
How to Handle the Protein Gaps in Grains
If you take a closer look at the essential amino acid makeup of these grains, a few patterns become evident. They contain different amino acids in varying concentrations, but are lacking in one or more, especially lysine. And you’d have to consume 5-10 servings a day to meet your amino acid requirements.
That’s why eating a variety of foods is the best diet. You can complement your protein intake from grains by consuming plant foods high in protein such as:
- Legumes (lentils, kidney beans, black beans, chickpeas)
- Seeds (chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds)
- Soybeans (edamame, tempeh)
Of course, no source of plant protein can compete with the amino acid profile of animal protein. If you aren’t on a vegetarian diet or vegan diet, mix up grain consumption with animal foods such as:
- Dairy (cottage cheese, milk, yogurt)
And you can shore up any additional protein gaps in these food sources, particularly in vegetarian diets, with an EAA supplement that contains the ideal proportions of amino acids to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, produce enzymes and neurotransmitters, maintain muscle mass and an ideal body weight, encourage appropriate weight loss, lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol levels, keep blood sugar stable, along with a plethora of other health benefits.