Grains such as amaranth, teff and freekeh were staples in the diets of the early societies of South and Central America, Asia and Africa. These grains and seeds have survived thousands of years of changing farming practices. In fact, they are often referred to as “ancient grains.”
Until recently, these grains were not well known to American consumers. Modern grains, such as wheat and corn, are easier to process and use. This makes them more appealing to food manufacturers. And has helped them become staples in the American diet.
Unlike heavily refined corn and wheat, most varieties of ancient grains are prepared and eaten as whole grains. This makes them nutritional powerhouses. Many ancient grains are gluten free, so they make a good alternative for people with celiac disease. And they are no longer reserved only for the shelves of health-food stores.
The Health Benefits of Ancient Grains
Ancient grains are whole grains. This means they contain all three of the edible layers of the original plant seed.
1. Below the outer layer of inedible husk lies the bran, which contains most of the grain’s fiber.
2. The starchy endosperm makes up the largest portion of the kernel, and provides the young plant with a source of stored energy.
3. The innermost layer, the germ, houses many of the vitamins, minerals and healthy oils.
The process of refining wheat involves removing both the bran and the germ. This eliminates one-fourth of the protein, almost all of the fiber, and most of the vitamins and minerals.
Several studies support the various health benefits of whole grains, or unrefined carbohydrates, compared with refined carbohydrates.
Eating three or more half-cup servings of cooked whole grains per day, instead of refined grains, is associated with:
Lower body mass index (BMI)
Smaller waist size
Less abdominal fat
Lower weight gain over time
Nutrition experts at Harvard School of Public Health created the The Healthy Eating Plate
to help people make healthier food choices. One quarter of the plate is whole grains. They contain fiber, phytoestrogens and antioxidants (such as vitamin A, vitamin E and compounds called polyphenols) — as well as other vitamins and minerals. These are known to:
Protect the heart
Lower the risk of type 2 diabetes
Have anti-cancer properties
Promote digestive health
Help with weight management
Seven Key Grains To Try
Here’s a closer look at ancient grains that you may want to check out.
Amaranth: Originally cultivated by the Aztecs, this grain packs a unique protein punch. Amaranth contains all 9 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. Each 1-cup serving of cooked amaranth has 9 grams of protein, compared with 4 grams in 1 cup of cooked white rice. It’s also gluten free and takes less than 20 minutes to cook.
: This is a versatile grain with a mild flavor. Teff is one of the primary sources of nutrition in Ethiopia. Each 1-cup serving of cooked teff provides 123 milligrams of calcium, more than any other grain. And it is gluten free. It is also a source of resistant starch, a dietary fiber thought to prevent spikes in blood sugar after meals. Many gluten-free baked goods feature teff; it can be ground into flour or cooked as porridge.
: This grain comes from wheat and has a nutty and smoky flavor. It has been a staple in Mediterranean diets for thousands of years. Higher in protein and fiber than brown rice, freekeh takes only about 20 minutes to cook and is a great addition to rice pilafs or soups.
: This grain came to the United States from Egypt. It is high in protein and fiber. Compared with modern wheat, it is richer in minerals, including selenium and manganese. Kamut is low in fat and cholesterol and can be cooked like rice, or ground and substituted for wheat flour in baked goods.
Sorghum: This gluten-free cereal grain originated in Egypt and later found its way to other parts of Africa. Specialty varieties of sorghum are high in antioxidants and policosanols, compounds important in heart health. Like kamut, this grain can be a substitute for wheat flour in most baked goods, or can be boiled like rice.
Millet: Thought to be the staple grain in Asia before rice, millet is the general term for a group of small-seeded grains now widely cultivated throughout the world. Millet is rich in antioxidants and magnesium, and is gluten free. The mild flavor makes it ideal to pair with any course or meal, but it is often added to pilafs, breakfast cereals and baked goods. It’s even used for brewing beer.
Quinoa: Widely popularized in recent years, this ancient grain has long been grown by the Incas in the Andes mountains. Quinoa is a complete protein, a rich source of potassium and is gluten free. It can be found in many baked goods, granolas and cereals. You can use it to replace your favorite grain-based side dishes.
Where You Can Find These Grains
Over the past few years, ancient grains have become a trend in nutrition and “foodie” circles. In fact, large grocery store chains and online retailers are now selling a wide variety of them. The increase in demand has come with an increase in price. The price of a one-pound bag of quinoa in the United States currently ranges from $4.50 to $8. There are strategies to making these healthful products more affordable and accessible:
Buy in bulk: Try a health food store or wholesale club.
Purchase from online retailers: These sites provide additional size and packaging offerings, and the convenience of home delivery.
Consider a Meatless Monday: The Meatless Monday initiative encourages people to cut meat from their diets one day per week. In doing so, you can lower your saturated fat intake, feature whole grains, improve your health and help reduce the environmental impact of animal food production.
Meet with a registered dietitian: Registered dieticians are the food and nutrition experts. You can find one in your area on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website.
Carbohydrates are not to be feared. By choosing high-quality carbohydrates, such as whole grains, you can improve health and better manage your weight. Consider ancient grains as a flavorful and nutritious alternative to refined carbohydrates in your diet.