A few years ago, the term “ancient grains” would likely not have been very familiar to you. But today, the phrase is showing up in the names of food products all throughout the grocery store. Wondering what all the fuss is about? Read on.
WHAT ARE ANCIENT GRAINS?
While there is no strict definition of what qualifies as an “ancient” grain, they are loosely defined by the Whole Grains Council as varieties that have been planted and harvested, without modification, for hundreds of years or more. Modern wheat, as an example, wouldn’t qualify, whereas heritage varieties such as amaranth, farro and einkorn would.
Interestingly, many of the grains that make the list are considered unique — trendy even — in the United States, but commonplace elsewhere. Kamut, for example, an ancient grain that reps a whopping 7 grams of protein per quarter cup and 65 percent more amino acids than wheat, has been cultivated by peasant farmers in Egypt for centuries.
WHAT MAKES THEM SO SPECIAL?
Unlike conventional refined grains, ancient grains have proven themselves to be true nutritional powerhouses, sporting a host of health benefits ranging from reduced risk for diabetes, cancer and heart disease, as well as improved digestion and boosted immunity.
Why? Ancient grains have much more robust nutritional profiles; a host of phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals are present, and more proteins and amino acids are intact. All good things!
HOW CAN I INTEGRATE THEM INTO MY DIET?
Most ancient grain varieties can be easily swapped with the traditional options you’re already used to — brown rice, porridge and the like. Most can be purchased in the bulk and packaged food aisles of health food stores.
To get the full range of benefits, mix and match these often. This is a great opportunity to try new things! Here are a few specific recommendations:
Classified as a pseudo-grain, amaranth has a peppery taste and a complete protein profile. It’s also packed with much-needed vitamins and minerals such as iron, magnesium, zinc, calcium and phosphorus, and is gluten-free. A small quarter cup serving has 6.5 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber! To eat, pop it like popcorn, or toss with veggies or salad.
Used frequently throughout Italy and the Mediterranean, farro is a popular grain staple in health-conscious eateries the world over thanks to its low calorie count. Nutty, chewy and utterly delicious, farro is a great addition to hearty soups and stews.
While often classified as a grain, quinoa is actually a seed that can be integrated beautifully in everything from salads to soups. It cooks quickly and comes in red, black and white varieties (Ever see “tri-color quinoa?” It’s a mix of these three). Keep in mind: quinoa should be rinsed thoroughly before use to rinse off its saponins, a bitter coating that keeps birds and insects away.
While you’re most likely to see millet in bird seed in the United States, it’s starting to show up in breads and other gluten free products. If you’re low on magnesium, a mineral that’s especially important for bone health, you’ll definitely want this one on your shelf. Grind millet to use in traditional flatbread recipes, steam it like rice, or cook it into a creamy couscous. Yum!
Kamut (or Khorasan)
Known for its buttery flavor and high levels of healthy (emphasis on healthy) fats, protein, selenium and zinc, kamut can be found in everything from cereal to baby food. But that’s not all! Kamut also offers a range of antioxidant benefits, helping to reduce gut inflammation and pain associated with IBS.
Sorghum, thanks to its versatility and drought resistance, is the fifth most popular cereal crop worldwide. It has a multitude of applications, from animal feed to biodegradable packaging. In addition, studies of sorghum suggest it may have a cholesterol-lowering effect on the body. Buy it in flour form to make delicious rustic breads or use sorghum syrup to flavor everything from baked beans to barbecue sauce.
Popular in Ethiopia, teff is gluten-free and higher in calcium than most of its counterparts. It’s also high in resistant starch, a type of carbohydrate that can be especially helpful when trying to lose weight. Cook it whole in porridge form, make into polenta or add to your favorite baked goods.