Ancient grains are often marketed as nutritional powerhouses that are ‘cleaner’ choices than standard wheat or rice varieties. They claim to be nutritionally similar to strains enjoyed by Incan, Aztec and other ancient civilisations for thousands of years and less selectively bred than modern grains.
What are ancient grains?
Similar to superfoods, there is no real definition of what classifies an ‘ancient grain’. Ancient grains include both grains (seeds of grass plants) and pseudo-grains (seeds of non-grass plants) that have reportedly remained unchanged in their nutritional status for millenium. As seeds of non-grass plants, buckwheat, amaranth and quinoa aren’t classified as true grains. However, since they are typically grown and cooked in a similar manner to more traditional grains, they are considered to be pseudo grains.
Nutritional benefits of ancient grains
In their wholegrain form, ancient grains are typically higher in protein and fibre, providing more vitamins, minerals and other nutrients than their modern counterparts. This can make them superior choices – particularly for those on a gluten free diet. However these claims are not hard and fast statements, as nutritional quality will differ according to the variety, soil and conditions under which grown. The nutritional composition of ancient grains is also influenced by cooking methods and processing.
Label reading is essential as some foods that contain ancient grains actually contain <1% by ingredient weight!
Are ancient grains gluten free?
Sorghum, millet, teff, amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa are ancient grains that are naturally gluten free and suitable for individuals with coeliac disease or gluten intolerances. However, einkorn, emmer (farro), freekeh, kamut and spelt are all heirloom varieties of wheat containing gluten and are unsuitable choices. They are often marketed as being lower in gluten, with claims that they are better tolerated and digested due to having not been selectively bred to the same extent.
Amaranth is a small gluten-free pseudo-grain originating from South America with a light and mild nutty flavour. Nutritionally it is high in protein, vitamin C, iron and calcium. When cooked it can be used as a gluten-free alternative to couscous, or can be ground into flour and used in baking.
Buckwheat is a pseudo-grain, a seed fruit related to rhubarb that originated in northern Europe and Asia. High in fibre and protein, it is a gluten-free grain, despite the word ‘wheat’ in it’s name. Buckwheat groats contain the best nutrient profile as an intact, wholegrain which can be toasted to reduce cooking time and develop a pleasant nutty flavour. Buckwheat used instead of barley in soups, as a porridge, or ground into flour to make gluten-free pancakes, cakes and other baked goods. Toasted buckwheat groats take about 15-20 minutes to cook, while the untoasted grain takes 20-30 minutes.
Technically neither a grain or a pseudograin, chia seeds are frequently included under the ancient grain banner in food products. Rich sources of protein, fibre and heart healthy polyunsaturated fats, chia seeds are packed full of other nutrients including calcium, iron and zinc. They absorb liquid to form a viscous gel and are often used to make chia puddings with dairy or dairy-free milks, sprinkled onto smoothies or cereal or mixed into baked goods.
Farro, Emmer & Einkorn
Farro is the Italian name for three varieties of heirloom grains: emmer einkorn and spelt. It is a low-yielding member of the wheat family that can grow in arid conditions. Originating in Egypt, it has been found in the tombs of ancient Egyptian kings, was allegedly carried by ancient Roman legions in their rations for it’s nutritional composition and consumed frequently in Italy. Farro has a nutty flavour, chewy texture and is high in fibre, protein, zinc, magnesium and iron. Wholegrain farro requires overnight soaking to avoid tough kernels and cooking times of well over an hour. Pearled and semipearled farro has had some of the bran removed and can be cooked without soaking in a similar manner to rice within 15-25 minutes. Farro can be added into soup, served al dente in salads, and can used to make pasta or bread.
Freekeh is young, roasted green wheat with a unique smoky aroma and nutty, toasted taste. Native to Lebanon, jordan, Syria and Egypt, freekeh is harvested young (green) when the grains are still soft, dried, roasted to burn off the chaff and develop a golden colour then polished and cracked. Freekeh is high in protein, fibre, iron, magnesium and zinc. It is low in GI and has a low insulin response which may make it helpful for people with type 2 diabetes. Freekeh can be used as an alternative to couscous or rice, added to soups, used in salads or cooked into a porridge.
Kamut® khorasan wheat
Kamut is a trademarked brand of wheat that is reported to be a modern descendent of an ancient Egyptian grain. It is high in protein and contains plenty of B vitamins, phosphorus, zinc and magnesium. Kamut is a large, sweet, nutty flavoured grain that is significantly higher in sugar and contains less fibre than modern wheat. Kamut kernels can be soaked overnight to reduce cooking time then simmered in a similar manner to rice for 30-40 minutes until tender. Kamutm can be used as an alternative to wheat four in baked goods, or cooked in it’s wholegrain format as an alternative to rice or couscous, added to salads, soups or cooked into a porridge.
Millet is a small, seed-like grain believed to have originated in North Africa that grows well in arid, infertile environments. It does not contain gluten so can be eaten by people with coeliac disease or gluten sensitivities. It is a good source of protein, manganese, phosphorus, magnesium and fibre.
Different cooking methods can influence the texture of millet. When stirred frequently with plenty of water, it can develop a texture similar to mashed potato. If left unstirred, it will have fluffy grains similar to that of rice.
Quinoa is a gluten-free grain originating from South America. It is low GI and packed with fibre, B vitamins and minerals including magnesium, potassium, iron, calcium, phosphorous and zinc. A more commonly known ancient grain, quinoa can be used as an alternative to rice or couscous, added to soups, breads or cooked into a porridge.
Sorghum is a gluten free grain related to millet that originated in parts of Africa and Australia and can be grown in arid, infertile environments. It is low in GI and high in protein and fibre. It can be ground into flour and used in a variety of baked goods or boiled whole and eaten as a rice alternative.
Spelt is a low-yielding grain of the wheat family, often linked with farro or emmer. Spelt is high in fibre and iron and is a source of protein, manganese, zinc and iron. Foods made from spelt often misleadingly claim to be gluten free or better tolerated forms of gluten. Wholegrain spelt kernels can be soaked overnight to reduce cooking time. It can be boiled and used as a rice alternative, added to soups or ground into a flour for baked goods.
Teff is a tiny grain made from the seed of an Ethiopian grass. It is gluten-free and packed full of nutrients including protein, magnesium, calcium, fibre, thiamin and iron. Teff is a versatile grain with a nutty flavour that can be eaten whole, ground into flour and used in baked goods or boiled into a porridge consistency. Traditionally it is ground into a flour and fermented in Ethiopia to make injera, a sourdough flatbread that is soft and thin like a pancake.
Nutrition composition of ancient grains per 100g uncooked grain
|Wheat||Brown Rice||Amaranth||Buckwheat groats||Chia||Kamut||Quinoa||Millet||Sorghum||Spelt||Teff|
*Nutrient data obtained from the USDA nutrient database
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Image Grain by Flickr/Marc Diluzio Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0). Accessed 29th June 2017