Rye has long been the underdog grain, associated with the lower class and relegated to the status of “acquired taste.” But not everywhere. There are countries – Russia, Poland, all of Scandinavia – that have long embraced rye, serving their coarse black breads proudly. Learn more about this hearty winter grain with these fun facts.

  1. It’s grass!
    Rye is part of the Poaceae or Graminae family (a.k.a “true grasses”). It’s related to wheat and barley, but was long considered a weed in barley and wheat fields.
  2. It’s huge in Russia
    The former Soviet Union had long been the biggest producer and consumer of rye and now the Russian Federation holds those titles. Canada grows more rye than the U.S. and a good amount of the grain ends up as Canadian whiskey.
  3. Rye can make you skinny
    Because it’s such a carb-rich grain, it can help make you feel full, even more so than eating wheat products, which in theory means you might eat less. In theory.
  4. It can be eaten and drunk
    Rye most often gets processed into flour for bread or fed to livestock. Most rye breads are a mix of rye and wheat flours, while Scandinavian-style black bread is made of pure rye flour. But baked goods aren’t the only way to consume rye. It’s used to make whiskey – both multigrain blends like bourbon and pure rye whiskey (and you can age it yourself, if you like). It’s also a base ingredient in many vodkas and gins.
  1. Oh yeah, you can eat the berries whole, too
    Whole rye berries can be boiled as a hearty alternative to a hot oatmeal breakfast or sprouted and sprinkled into salads. The berries are sweet and nutty, with that unmistakably rye flavor.
  1. Rye is healthy
    It’s a good source of soluble fiber, vitamin E, calcium, iron, and potassium, and has been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, breast cancer and diabetes. Because rye is harder to refine than wheat, it retains more of its nutrients.
  1. It was once known as the “poverty grain”
    Because it’s a robust grain that grows well in poor soils, it acquired this monicker. The fact that it was often harvested and eaten by impoverished communities surely reinforced this stereotype.
  1. Rye is lower in gluten than wheat
    It will still be problematic for celiacs – don’t say we didn’t warn you – but rye is significantly lower in gluten than wheat.
  1. Rye is good for the environment
    It’s been used as a winter cover crop, especially in organic farming, for generations. Because it has deep roots, rye is able to capture nutrients, enhance soil health, prevent soil erosion, and reduce weeds without the use of herbicides.
  2. It can make you high
    Um, not really. But if you were to eat ergot-infected rye – ergot is the most common disease that attacks the grain – you might feel effects similar to those of LSD. Not that you should try this at home: it also can cause death.

Read more about rye whiskey on Food Republic: