Ancient grains dominating modern diets

As more people choose to follow plant-based diets, many are rediscovering the taste, versatility and health benefits of ancient grains.

The Whole Grains Council defines these products as grains that have remained largely unchanged over the last several hundred years. But the term is also includes various forms of wheat and pseudo-cereals, which are seeds that are consumed like grains.

Name that grain

The most popular and common ancient grains sold today include varieties of wheat like spelt and bulgur, grains like millet, barley, oats and sorghum, and pseudo-cereals like quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and chia.

Many people also consider heirloom varieties of other common grains, such as black barley, red and black rice, blue corn to be ancient grains.

While many ancient grains have remained dietary staples in various parts of the developing world throughout human history, including China, India, Africa and the Middle East, their growing popularity in Westernised cultures has been more recent.

Nutritional powerhouses

That’s because these whole-grain products are generally more nutritious than refined grain, corn and wheat products, offering beneficial amounts of vitamins, minerals and even plant protein.

They are also great sources of soluble and insoluble fibre, with one cup of uncooked millet providing as much fiber as 4 cups of white rice, for example.

Many also offer naturally gluten-free alternatives to other wheats and grains, which has made them popular among those with food sensitivities, allergies and intolerances. And true ancient grains are also non-G.M.O.

In addition, various studies have linked ancient grain consumption to health benefits such as improved digestion.

Cooking with ancient grains

Ancient grains can be used whole in a variety of dishes, including soups, stews and salads as an accompaniment to or replacement for rice.

Many also make an ideal breakfast option, either soaked or cooked with milk, milk alternatives or water.

And they are really versatile, with many manufacturers choosing to grind certain ancient grains into flours for use in baking as a replacement for processed flour by those who want or need a gluten-free alternative.

Your ancient grain options

Spelt: Spelt contains more protein than common wheat, and is also a good source of fibre, iron and manganese. However, spelt is not gluten-free. It has a sweet, nut-like flavour and chewy texture, which makes it a firm favourite in breakfast recipes, or in various rice dishes, soups or salads. Spelt flour is also suitable for baking.

Bulgur: Bulgur (also known as cracked wheat) is one of the more fibre-rich ancient grains, packing in more fibre than quinoa, oats, millet and buckwheat. It also contains about 6g protein per one-cup serving, and is a good source of manganese, copper and magnesium. Bulgur is generally sold precooked and dried, which makes it a more convenient ingredient to whip up a healthy lunch or dinner meal. Its mild flavour makes it a suitable replacement for rice dishes. It is, however, another ancient grain that contains wheat and gluten, so it may not be ideal for individuals who are sensitive to those ingredients.

Millet: Millet is a gluten-free ancient grain that is rich in antioxidants. These small, yellowish grains have a light flavour profile, which makes them ideal for used in various dishes, from hot breakfast porridges to lunch and dinner meals. It is also a suitable replacement for other grains like rice, couscous and quinoa. Millet can be steamed like rice, tossed in a salad, or cooked with milk or milk alternatives into a creamy porridge. You can also pop it like corn and eat it as a whole grain snack. Millet contains 6g of protein per one-cup serving, along with magnesium, manganese and thiamine (vitamin B1).

Barley: Barley is highly nutritious and among the most widely consumed ancient grains in the modern Westernised diet. It also boasts one of the highest fibre contents among all whole grains, but has less protein per cup (4g) than millet and bulgar. Barley is a natural source of selenium, iron and thiamine (vitamin B1), and is also high in beta glucans, a type of soluble fibre that dissolves easily in water and forms a gel-like substance in your gut to aid digestion.

Sorghum: Sorghum is a great source of nutrition, offering 11g of protein and 7g fibre, along with manganese, magnesium, copper and selenium. Sorghum also contains powerful polyphenol plant compounds, including anthocyanins and phenolic acids, which deliver potent antioxidant effects to manage free radicals and reduce oxidative stress. This gluten-free ancient grain can be easily ground into flour and is, therefore, ideal for gluten-free baking. Its mild flavour also makes it extremely versatile.

Quinoa: Quinoa is one of the more popular, gluten-free ancient grain, primarily due to its rich protein content. It contains all 9 essential amino acids, which makes it a complete plant protein, providing 8g per one-cup serving. It is another good source of dietary fibre, and contains potassium, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, folate and zinc, along with potent antioxidants in the form of quercetin and kaempferol. Quinoa has a mild taste and is easy to use in breakfast recipes, and various lunch and dinner meals.

Amaranth: This is another protein-packed (9g per cup) gluten-free ancient grain. It is highly nutritious, packed with fibre, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. Amaranth can be cooked as a breakfast porridge, used to coat meat, tossed with salads or vegetables, or it can be puffed like popped corn. It is also a great ingredient to add bulk and thickness to soups or stews. It is also a suitable replacement for rice, couscous and quinoa. Ground amaranth (flour) can be used to make gluten-free breads and pizza dough.

Buckwheat: Buckwheat is not actually wheat. It’s a gluten-free seed, or a pseudo-cereal like amaranth and quinoa. It is used extensively in raw food recipes, or as flour for a range of meal options. You can use buckwheat to replace wheat grains such as bulgur or spelt using the same cooking methods. It is a source of high-quality and relatively inexpensive protein.

Chia seeds: Most of us know chia seeds as a superfood rather than an ancient grain, but it is both. These nutritional powerhouses contain omega-3 fatty acids, with 2.5g of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) per tablespoon, which is more than the recommended daily minimum requirement. Chia seeds are also a good source of calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, and are high in protein and fibre. When soaked in liquids such as water, milk or milk alternatives, chia seeds expand and make a great porridge or dessert option, or they can act as a thickener. When consumed as part of a meal or smoothie, they can also expand in the stomach to promote feelings of satiety, or fullness. Chia seeds have a neutral flavour, which makes them a versatile ingredient that can be included in a range of recipes to add texture, energy and boost its nutritional profile.

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

When he's not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He's worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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