“Ancient grains” may conjure up images of Biblical figures sharing bread with one another around a outdoor fire. While these grains have been the base of our diets for thousands of years, today you can find more and more of these nutritious grains in the bread and frozen food aisles. But do they offer the super-packed goodness they promise? The level of nutrition varies from variety to variety, but in all, ancient grains can provide added fiber, protein and brain power.
Ancient grains like quinoa, spelt, farro, kamut, teff, amaranth and freekeh are lumped together as “grains,” but they are not actually all from the wheat family. Kamut, spelt, farro and freekeh are from the wheat family, but quinoa, teff and amaranth are not, making them gluten-free. Someone with Celiac Disease should stay away from wheat bread, but could partake in a quinoa salad that is free from all other gluten derivatives.
Ancient grains are called “ancient” because they have remained unaltered since the beginning of time, while rice, corn and wheat have been modified to reflect better shape, size, color and taste.
Here is a breakdown of the benefits of ancient grains:
- Quinoa contains essential amino acids, and has a high ratio of protein to carbohydrates. In addition, quinoa has the highest level of potassium compared to all other grains. Like couscous, it has a nutty flavor. The grain does require rinsing because they are coated with bitter saponins, but you can buy sprouted quinoa, which doesn’t require rinsing and is easier to digest.
- Amaranth has more than three times the average amount of calcium and is also high in iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. It’s also the only grain documented to contain Vitamin C. A street food in South America, the grain is sold like popcorn, and locals enjoy a peppery, slightly crunchy taste.
- This tiny grain, which is about the size of a poppy seed, leads all others in its calcium content and is high in the type of dietary fiber that supports blood sugar management, weight control and colon health. The grain is used in used in the spongy Ethiopian flatbread, injera.
Regular Gluten Grains
- Kamut has about 30% more protein than wheat, and more fatty amino acids, plus vitamin E. Although it’s not gluten-free, some people who are allergic to wheat can tolerate kamut, and enjoy its chewy, nutty, rich flavor.
- This ancient variety of wheat is widely available in the U.S. as Italian farro (or emmer). It is known within foodie circles as the best grain to make pasta. It can also be used to make risotto. This complex carb breaks down slowly in the system, and contains about 8 grams of fiber per cup.
- Spelt was one of the first grains to be used for bread. Because it is more resistant to diseases, the organic movement has made it popular again once industrial farming abandoned the grain for more wheats better suited for mechanical harvesting. This grain has a sweet nutty flavor, and has higher protein than modern day wheat.
- Because it is harvested when its young, freekeh has an incredibly high fiber content. Also an excellent source of protein, freekeh is chewy, nutty and slightly smoky in flavor.
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