Conventional wisdom says that it’s good to be young. After all, youth is all about vigor and hope. But when it comes to whole grains, being age-old is something to celebrate. Thanks to newly “discovered” ancient grains like quinoa, teff, and spelt, the diversity of whole grains available to us has never been greater.
Dubbed “ancient” because their cultivation has been occurring among cultures for centuries and long before food scientists began altering modern day wheat to bring about desirable traits such as increased yields. (Note: These alterations have occurred not through genetic modification, but instead through other forms of crop science.) Some consumers may gravitate toward these grain options, believing that they are closer to what Mother Nature intended for us to eat.
“As whole grains, these are full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which contribute to improved diet quality and overall health,” says Kate Geagan, RD, co-founder of Food and Planet. “And levels are often higher than you’ll find in modern forms of wheat or refined grains,” she adds.
For instance, South American amaranth has high amounts of magnesium, an essential mineral linked to a lower risk for type 2 diabetes.
Hailing from East Africa, teff is notably higher in iron than other whole grains. “Iron helps carry oxygen through your bloodstream and get it into the muscles where it’s used to create energy,” notes Geagan.
Eaten daily in Africa and many parts of Asia, gluten-free millet has a subtle corn-like flavor along with useful amounts of bone-strengthening phosphorus.
Also sold under the trademarked name Forbidden Rice, because legend has it that it was forbidden for anyone other than emperors of ancient China to eat it, Chinese black rice is packed with the same type of disease-fighting anthocyanin antioxidants you’d find in berries.
Perhaps a contender for the oldest grain around, barley is one of the best ways to infuse a diet with beta-glucan, a unique type of fiber that can help lower cholesterol numbers. Tip: To reap these rewards, you want to seek out hulled barley since it still contains the fiber-rich bran layer that is mostly stripped away when producing faster cooking pearled barley.
And both quinoa and freekeh have been heralded as being good sources of satiating fiber and plant-based protein. “People forget that certain grains including quinoa and freekeh can contribute to daily protein needs,” Geagan says.
Beyond their nutritional might, the modern revival of ancient grains is owing to the interesting textures and flavor nuances they bring to the table.
Popular among many generations of Italian cooks, farro has a wonderful chewy texture that can elevate salads, soups, and stuffings.
Middle Eastern freekeh (pronounced FREAK-eh) is a “green” version of wheat that is harvested while still immature, then sun-dried and finally roasted, lending it a delicious smoky flavor that may make it your new favorite pantry staple.
The gelatinous nature of teff can be leveraged to make puddings, corn-free versions of polenta, or even breakfast porridge.
Spelt cooks up nice and plump with a nutty flavor that can serve as a great base for stir-fries and grain bowls.
Black rice has a toothsome sweetness that you won’t find in brown or white rice.
The mild, earthy flavor of sorghum is a perfect fit for pilafs and versions of taboulleh.
With resurgent interest in these old-world grains, there can also be some environmental benefits. “These help us build a more biodiverse food system and utilize plants that are better equipped to handle a changing climate,” explains Geagan.
Keep in mind
While some ancient grains like teff and sorghum are indeed gluten-free, those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance need to be aware that not all ancient grains are free of gluten.
Spelt, kamut, farro, and freekeh are in the wheat family and, therefore, do contain some gluten. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these wheat varieties can be easier to digest for some people (lower levels or milder forms of gliadin, a type of gluten protein, could be the reason), but there is some research showing they are not safe to eat for those with celiac disease.
Cook ’em up
Here’s how to cook some great grains with ancient roots. Simmer grains in the amount of water (or use broth for more flavor) indicated until they are tender, then drain any excess liquid.