What Do Ancient Grains Bring to the Table?
You know about the health benefits of whole grains over refined grains – but you might not yet have given much thought to the moniker “ancient grains” despite its growing popularity… We recently sampled a croissant at a local farmers’ market made with ‘einkorn’ and figured it was time to touch on a few “ancient grains” given the rise in clean eating trends.
What The Heck Are Ancient Grains?
‘Ancient grains’ simply are (whole) grains which have remained mostly genetically unchanged for centuries (or millennia!). Technically, some – like quinoa – are seeds, not grains, but don’t overthink it – all are used and consumed similarly!
‘Ancient grains’ have long been dietary staples in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and some have been available for years in the US, but a more diverse group is now gaining popularity. Only sold and used as whole grains, they offer all the related dietary benefits together with the added appeal of non-GMO, minimally processed foods – and a heavy dash of trendiness!
Bread wheat is definitely not “ancient”! The hybrid of a wild grass and either farro or durum wheat, bread wheat appeared naturally eons ago, with kernels which happened to be easily stripped of their inedible shells and to have the right gluten to help bread rise. But like corn, wheat was heavily genetically modified to increase crop yields and resistance, most of it funded in the 1960s by huge global public investments.
Are Ancient Grains Better for You?
Not just the new kid on the block, ancient grains “pack a nutritional punch” says Helen Mullen, a clinical nutritionist with New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. Ancient grains tend to be rich in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, zinc and other minerals.
Some varieties do offer more protein and fiber than more common whole grains like rice and wheat. Truth be told, though, most of the nutritional value of ancient grains stems from their being consumed as whole grains. A refined ancient grain would not be particularly nutritious!
Some New Ancient Grains
Besides the usual OG’s — quinoa, chia, amaranth, sorghum — here’s what makes a few of the ancient grains you might encounter on menus and in stores special…
A tiny seed originating from Ethiopia, about 1mm in diameter – 1/100th the size of a wheat kernel. In Ethiopia, teff is the main ingredient for injera – a sourdough, spongy flatbread used as an edible plate. It is sometimes claimed that Ethiopian distance runners get two thirds of their protein intake from teff.
Teff’s other major claim to fame is its vitamin C content! Most grains hold no vit C whatsoever, but a half cup of uncooked teff provides nearly 100% of the recommended daily value of vitamin C. And being a seed, teff is gluten-free.
While spelt is the youngest and best known of the ancient wheat grains, einkorn is the most primitive wheat available on earth. Long put aside by farmers in favor of more prolific hybrids and largely ignored by the broader public until it was found in the frozen stomach of 5,000-yr old Ötzi the Iceman 30 years ago, einkorn is the only wheat grain which has not been genetically modified over time. As a result, its gluten content is low, differs from the gluten in modern wheat and has been reported to be much easier to digest. Notably, einkorn provides meaningful amounts of anti-oxidant carotenoids, several times more than conventional whole wheat.
Einkorn’s flavor is similar to commercial wheat but with nutty/toasty overtones which definitely came through in my newly discovered croissant!!
Widely used in the Middle East, especially Southern Lebanon and Egypt, Freekeh is green durum wheat, harvested before having fully ripened. With a nutty taste similar to Einkorn’s, Freekeh also boasts substantial amounts of protein (a fifth of its uncooked weight) and carotenoid compounds, including lutein and zeaxanthin. But freekeh’s gluten is best avoided by those needing a gluten-free diet.
Once largely only found in the West in bird feeders, millet has long been a food staple throughout China, India, and Africa. Its nutritional profile is somewhat average, but it is gluten free, easily digested, rich in magnesium and niacin, and it can easily be substituted for grains like rice, couscous, or quinoa – variety is good! You might occasionally find millet as “fonio”, a West African variety.
What about Heritage Grains?
Increasingly found in farmers’ markets and local bakery shelves, ‘Heritage Grains’ refer to grains – including wheat, rye, barley, oats, and of course ancient grains – which are free of modern genetic engineering for yield and resistance to disease, in contrast to industrial wheat, corn, and rice. Many of those offer more easily digested gluten and are grown with less reliance on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
While the designation ‘heritage grains’ is not synonymous with ‘organic grains’, the Heritage Grain Foundation points out that heritage grains do lend themselves better to organic practices. As these grains were developed to be resilient naturally, with deeper root systems, they are better equipped to thrive without the pesticides and fertilizers which their mass-market counterparts cannot do without.