8 Ancient Grains to Incorporate into your Modern Day Diet
Updated: Nov 26, 2018
You may have heard the term "ancient grains," or seen the marketing on packages. In the last several years, a number of grains, dubbed "ancient", popped onto the food scene with great popularity; however, these grains have actually been around for thousands of years.
So what are ancient grains?
While there is no set definition for what makes certain grains "ancient", they are often loosely defined as grains that have remained unchanged for thousands of years. Some grains that are bred and modified, like wheat, therefore are not considered "ancient."
Ancient grains offer a variety of nutrients, including B vitamins, potassium, iron, magnesium, fiber, and some protein. While "modern" grains are wonderfully healthy, ancient grains, generally speaking, may offer more protein and fiber. Keep in mind that both ancient grains and modern grains are healthier than refined grains (white flour, for example), which offer little to no nutritional value.
Parts of the Whole
All ancient grains are whole grains. Whole grains maintain the endosperm, germ and bran of the kernel, which are where all of a grain's nutrients are found. Refined grains, however, lose the germ and bran during the milling process, which in turn eliminates a majority of nutrients and fiber.
Pseudo-Cereal Grains v. Cereal Grains
Grains, or "cereal grains" come from the Poaceae family of plants. As you'll see below, this includes grain varieties like millet, sorghum, and freekeh. However, some "grains" we commonly consume are not actually grains at all, but instead come from plant families other than the Poaceae family. These "pseudo-grains" offer similar nutrient profiles and are prepared similarly to "true" cereal grains.
"Amaranth" is the common name for over 60 species of Amaranthus, a very tall plant with vibrant flowers. Amaranth, a pseudo-grain, is native to Peru and was a major crop of the Aztecs. The crop quickly adapts to climate change, and once adapted can continue to thrive.
Amaranth is naturally gluten-free, and is an excellent source of calcium, iron, magnesium phosphorus, potassium and fiber. It's also the only grain known to contain vitamin C! Amaranth grain is easy to cook, and never fully loses its crunchy texture, making it a great topping for salad. Try popping like popcorn, adding to soup, or eating as a breakfast porridge instead of oats.
Try this recipe: Amaranth-Quinoa and Pear Porridge
A pseudo-grain (it's actually a seed!), that despite its name, is gluten-free. Buckwheat has been around for approximately 8,000 years, playing an important role in diets around the world. Buckwheat is an excellent source of protein, coming in at 23 grams per cup! It's also high in fiber and antioxidants, while coontaining higher amounts of zinc, copper, and manganese than other grains.
One of the first crops to be domesticated in the Middle East, Farro is a gluten-containing grain loaded with fiber and protein, B vitamins and iron. It is thought to hold one of the highest antioxidant levels as compared to other grain varieties.
Farro is nutty in flavor. Be sure to soak overnight before cooking. Try farro as a hot cereal, as flour, or substitute for rice in risotto, as it carries a chewy, dense texture.
Try this recipe: Farro with Pistachios and Herbs
Pronounced "free-kah", Arabic for "to rub" referring to the process by which the grain is made (it is durum wheat that is roasted, rubbed and dried). Another pseudo-grain, freekeh has been popular for centuries in countries like Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.
Due to its processing, freekeh has a mild smoky flavor. It is high in protein, fiber, and a good source of vitamins A and E, potassium and calcium. With a nutty and chewy flavor, this grain is great for pilafs, soups and stews. Freekeh contains gluten.
Try this recipe: Almond & Parsley Pesto with Asparagus and Freekeh
Millet is the name given to several small- seeded grains. It's gluten-free and native to West Africa. This grain is high in antioxidants, and a good source of magnesium, copper, phosphorus, and manganese. Millet has a mild flavor, which can be used in cereals, added to bread, soups or stews.
The pseudo-grain we all know and love! This grain comes to us from the Andes, and has long been cultivated by the Inca. Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), is actually more closely related to swiss chard, spinach and beets than grain. It is the seed of the Chenopodium plant, a leafy plant that sprouts numerous flowers. Quinoa comes in white, red, and black. White quinoa is mild in flavor and fluffier when cooked than red and black varieties. Red quinoa is nuttier and richer in flavor, and is great for baked goods and salads, as it holds its texture well. Black quinoa offers an earthy flavor and is sweeter than white quinoa. All three are relatively mild in flavor, and therefore, versatile in the kitchen.
Quinoa is very high in protein, and is a "complete protein", meaning it provides all nine amino acids that our body cannot make (deemed "essential" amino acids). One cup provides 5 grams of fiber, and is rich in magnesium, zinc, iron, folate, thiamine, and phosphorus. Quinoa, like other pseudo-grains, is gluten-free.
Sorghum was collected 8,000 years ago in Africa and spread through the Middle East and Asia. This gluten-free grain has kernels that range in color from deep reds, to purples to white, bronze, and brown. Sorghum is an excellent source of antioxidants and fiber, and is considered low FODMAP due to its easy digestibility. In the United States, Sorghum plants are often used to make sorghum syrup, which is similar to molasses. In grain form, its hearty, chewy texture (similar to wheat berries) is a great addition to soups, pilafs and salads. You can also pop this grain like corn, offering a new twist on the classic snack.
Teff has been cultivated for consumption for thousands of years, originating in Ethiopia. It is by far the greatest calcium source of all grains, offering 123 mg of calcium per cooked cup (almost three times as much as other grains). This is about the same amount of calcium as 1/2 cup spinach! Teff is also an excellent source of protein, fiber, iron, copper and thiamin. It is gluten-containing. Use teff flour in pancakes, crepes, and breads, or in whole form as a crunchy salad topping.
Try this recipe: Coconut Walnut Teff Scones
The Take Home:
Whole and Ancient grains are a healthy, important addition to your diet. Incorporate both regularly and, first and foremost, steer clear of refined, highly processed grains.
*As noted above, many of the grains covered in this post are gluten free. While I do not believe a person needs to be gluten free unless he/she is diagnosed with Celiac Disease, or has a gluten sensitivity, many grains that offer fabulous health benefits also happen to be gluten free. Some grains, however, do contain gluten,so those that are gluten intolerant please take note.
What's your favorite way to incorporate ancient grains into your routine?