What Are Ancient Grains and Are They Good for You?
By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD
The definition of ancient grains is in their name. These grains have been around for several thousands of years, since humans began to farm and cultivate grains for consumption. Both legends and scientific studies alike have identified ancient grains as major crops that played a large role in human history.
Some tales even suggest that certain ancient grains were saved by Noah on his ark or stored in King Tut’s tomb. Regardless of whether these stories are completely accurate, ancient grains have a rich history that spans thousands of years.
Unlike modern grains, such as wheat, corn, and rice, that have been modified over time, ancient grains have been largely unchanged. In other words, they are grown just as they were in “ancient” times without hybridization or genetic modification.
Ancient grains also differ from modern options in terms of their nutrition. They tend to offer more fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals than modernized wheat, corn, and rice. So, while you can certainly continue to eat brown rice and freshly popped corn if you enjoy them, incorporating ancient grains into your meals from time to time can provide some added nutrition.
Types of ancient grains include varieties of wheat, including farro, kamut, einkorn, bulger, and freekeh; grains such as millet, barley, and teff; and pseudocereals like quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth.
All of these grains are highly nutritious and an excellent source of complex carbohydrates that can stabilize energy levels and help keep you full and satisfied. Some ancient grains are also gluten free and suitable for those with celiac disease.
Use the guide below to learn more about some of the most popular ancient grains and how you can incorporate them into your diet!
Ancient Grains Guide
Farro is a form of wheat popular in Italy and the Mediterranean region. The name farro actually refers to three different types of ancient wheat: einkorn, emmer, and spelt. Farro has a chewy texture and hearty flavor, and can be used in the same way as rice in cooking.
A ¼ cup serving packs 6 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber, compared to less than 1 gram of fiber and a little over 1 gram of protein in the same amount of brown rice. Since farro is derived from wheat, it is not suitable for gluten free diets. Farro is used in several recipes at Healthy For Life Meals, including our vegetable Farrotto.
How to use it: Add cooked farro to salads or soups, or use it as a base for risotto! Farro tastes delicious with warm roasted vegetables and freshly grated cheese.
Barley is a popular ancient cereal grain that is widely produced, due to its adaptability to varying climates and conditions. While it has similar amounts of vitamins and minerals to other whole grains, it has relatively more fiber, packing 8 grams in ¼ cup. Keep in mind that barley is not gluten free like some other ancient grains.
At Healthy For Life Meals, we feature barley in some of our delicious meals, including the Beef Vegetable Barley Stew on our traditional menu!
How to use it: Barley is a versatile grain that can be used as a base for beer, in bread, or in stews and soups.
Amaranth is a pseudocereal cultivated for its seeds but classified as an ancient whole grain. Thousands of years ago, it was primarily grown in Mexico and Peru as a staple crop for the Aztecs.
Amaranth is a complete protein with all of the essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein that humans need to obtain from diet, and contains calcium and iron. It is also gluten free and suitable for those with celiac disease.
How to use it: Amaranth is delicious in breakfast dishes, such as oatmeal or porridge. You can also use it as a base for risotto or as the glue for veggie burgers.
Quinoa is another pseudocereal in the same family as amaranth that originated in South America. It has become incredibly popular in recent years due to its versatility and protein and fiber content. You can find it in nearly every grocery store and on restaurant menus all over the country.
Similar to amaranth, quinoa is a gluten free complete protein and has approximately 8 grams in one cup. This grain has made its debut on the menus for Healthy For Life Meals in dishes like our Quinoa Vegetable Stew!
How to use it: Add cooked quinoa to salads and soups, or serve it on the side of a lean protein for a complete meal. You can also add quinoa to healthy baked goods and granolas.
Millet refers to a group of grasses with small, yellow seeds grown primarily in Asia and Africa. While it does not have as much fiber and protein as other whole grains, millet is extremely rich in magnesium and iron.
You may have heard millet referred to as “bird food.” It’s true that millet is part of bird seed, but this grain is an edible and nutritious food for humans too!
How to use it: Millet tastes delicious with hot cereals or stuffed in vegetables and squashes. Puffed millet can be found in cereals and granolas.
Teff is native to Ethiopia. Since the seeds of this grass are so small, it cooks more quickly than other ancient grains.
But even though teff is small, its nutrition benefits are mighty. In particular, teff is rich in several B vitamins as well as calcium and iron that provide benefits for bone and blood health.
How to use it: Teff can be ground into a fine flour that can be used to make nutritious pancakes, or used whole in pilafs and hot cereals.
Instead of referring to a plant or species, the name freekeh actually refers to the process of creating this grain. Specifically, freekeh is the process of roasting and rubbing durum wheat to create a flavorful product. The durum wheat used to create freekeh is green in color and harvested before it is fully mature.
Freekeh is popular in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, but has become more widely available in the United States. It is rich in fiber and micronutrients, and has more protein per serving than quinoa. Even more, freekeh is loaded with manganese that helps support bone health and blood clotting. Freekeh is used in several recipes at Healthy For Life Meals, including our roasted greenwheat vegetarian meatballs!
How to use it: You can use freekeh as you would any other whole grain in salads, grain side dishes, or even mixed into soups.
Even though it has the word “wheat” in its name, buckwheat is not actually a gluten containing grain. It is a pseudocereal cultivated for its seeds, also known as groats.
Similar to quinoa and amaranth, buckwheat contains all nine essential amino acids and is therefore a complete protein. It is also rich in fiber, magnesium, copper, and iron, and contains antioxidants that can fight disease.
How to use it: One of the most common uses of buckwheat is as a base for noodles. To use buckwheat at home, try adding it to salads, granolas, hot cereal dishes, and pancakes.
Kamut is a large ancient wheat species originally cultivated in the Middle East and Central Asia. It is also known as Pharoah grain, since it has been discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs! The arrival of Kamut in the United States did not happen until the mid-1900s when an American pilot brought back kernels from Egypt.
Even though it is related to modern wheat, kamut has much more protein and amino acids. But keep in mind that if you need to follow a gluten free diet, kamut is not an option.
How to use it: Kamut can be used in place of rice in most dishes, including casseroles and pilafs. You can also use kamut flour to bake breads. To cut down on cooking time for kamut, consider soaking it overnight.
Where to Find Ancient Grains
Due to their increased popularity and subsequent increase in cultivation, ancient grains are widely available in the United States. You can purchase most of the grains on this list at any grocery store.
To prepare ancient grains, follow the instructions on their package. Cooked grains can be stored in the fridge or freezer to throw into healthy meals when desired!
Note from Healthy For Life Meals: With our meals, you can get all of the benefits of nutritious ancient grains without having to prepare them yourself! We include barley, quinoa, farro, freekeh, kamut, and several other ancient whole grains that are rich in fiber, protein, and other nutrients in our menu items. Get started with one of our menus today!