Modern grains, like rice, corn, and wheat, have been through extensive selective breeding. In some cases, there has even been hybridization between grains. Ancient grains, on the other hand, are mostly the same as they were thousands of years ago.
While ancient grains aren’t as widely used as their modern counterparts, their popularity has been increasing in recent years. Many people feel that ancient grains are more nutritious than grains that have been selectively bred (although this claim is sometimes disputed).
Whether they’re more nutritious or not, ancient grains do have advantages.
For one thing, the grains are different. They’re a great way to add more variety to your diet. After all, rice, wheat, and corn can get boring after a while.
The grains also have different nutritional profiles from each other and from modern grains. As such, they’re an easy way to change your nutrient intake. For example, some may include more protein than wheat. This is particularly true for pseudocereals, which are seeds that are used in the same way as grains.
Finally, ancient grains are often gluten free. This makes them perfect for anyone who needs to avoid gluten or who wants to decrease their gluten intake. Learning to cook with ancient grains comes with some challenges, but the benefits outweigh the downside for many.
- Khorasan Wheat (Kamut)
- Chia Seeds
Historical references suggest that spelt has been grown since 5000 BC and was particularly important in Europe into the medieval age. While the grain re-emerged in the United States, it did not remain popular.
It is only with the recent shift towards organic foods and ancient grains that spelt has begun to be popular once again. These days, spelt is a fairly common choice as a wheat alternative, often in artisan products and by small-batch manufacturers.
As with many grains on this list, spelt is a decent source of protein and fiber. You get around 14.5 grams of protein per 100 grams of uncooked spelt.
Manganese, phosphorous, niacin (vitamin B3), and magnesium are all prominent in the grain.
Spelt is related to bulgar wheat, so it does contain gluten. This gluten makes it an easy substitute for wheat when baking. Still, the gluten makes spelt unsuitable for anyone with a gluten sensitivity.
Bulgar also goes by the name cracked wheat. And, as that name suggests, it is made from durum wheat that has been broken or cracked. This means that it does contain gluten and will be unsuitable for anyone who cannot tolerate wheat.
Still, bulgar does have some advantages, such as the grain’s high fiber content. A single cup of cooked bulgar gives you an impressive 8 grams of fiber. The same serving contains 6 grams of protein too, along with notable amounts of manganese, copper, and magnesium.
The bulgar available in stores is often parboiled. This means that it is already partially cooked, which allows you to quickly cook the grain at home.
If you want something that hasn’t been parboiled, look for the name cracked wheat rather than bulgar. While the two terms are often synonymous, some cracked wheat products don’t go through the parboiling stage.
Emmer belongs to the farro family of ancient grains. It was rediscovered in the early 1900s and is slowly becoming more popular, especially with the recent interest in ancient grains.
These days, emmer is a specialty crop in the United States, often used by people who want to improve their health or simply use different ingredients. Emmer is more prevalent in other parts of the world, including Italy.
A key advantage is that the grain will grow well in poor soils. It is resistant to disease too, making it an easy crop to grow in a variety of conditions. These features also make the grain relatively easy to grow organically.
Emmer also goes by the name emmer wheat or hulled wheat. As those names suggest, the ancient grain is a part of the wheat family and does contain gluten.
Farro is another wheat-based ancient grain. It is notable for having high protein and fiber content, much more than you’ll find with some other options.
Farro also contains plant-based nutrients, such as polyphenols and carotenoids. Plant-based nutrients like these have been linked to health improvements, like decreasing the risk of heart disease and lowering inflammation in the body.
Niacin (vitamin B3) is another reason to eat this grain. 100 grams of uncooked farro offers more than 50% of your daily intake for niacin. This is impressive, as it’s easy to have low niacin intake.
Einkorn is interesting, as the ancient grain was a hot food trend at one point, with many authors focusing on new and delicious recipes using the grain. It is still considered a superfood in many circles and promoted as being more nutritious than wheat.
Einkorn does have many advantages. For one thing, it contains less phytic acid than wheat, which may help to improve digestive health. Einkorn contains more phytonutrients too and the flavor is appealing.
The grain is also unusual. While it contains gluten, this gluten behaves differently than gluten in modern wheat, so einkorn produces interesting results when trying to bake with it.
While the presence of gluten makes the grain unsuitable for anyone who is gluten intolerant, the differences between the types of gluten may make einkorn easier to tolerate compared to regular wheat.
Finally, the grain isn’t easy to grow or process. This isn’t such an issue, as you’re probably not trying to grow the grain yourself. Still, grains that are more difficult to grow tend to be more expensive, which is frustrating.
Khorasan Wheat (Kamut)
The popularity of Kamut is partly linked to the grain’s flavor. Kamut tends to have a sweet and nutty taste, with slightly buttery tones. This flavor balance makes Kamut ideal for baking, giving rise to delicious foods.
Just like some other ancient types of wheat, Kamut may also be easier to digest than modern wheat. While some people with gluten sensitivity still have problems with Kamut, others find that they can enjoy the grain.
Interestingly, the name Kamut is a brand name for the ancient grain as a modern company has focused on selling an organically produced version of the grain. Other sources of the grain can be found, generally marketed under the name Khorasan wheat rather than Kamut.
Freekeh is most popular in Middle Eastern meals. It is another wheat-based grain, but one that also contains a considerable amount of protein and fiber.
The protein and fiber both make freekeh a filling ingredient, especially if you’re using it instead of regular wheat.
Freekeh is also notable for the compounds lutein and zeaxanthin. These are both carotenoids, ones that may help to reduce the risk of some eye disorders, including cataracts.
The grain has an appealing nutty and slightly earthy flavor. It is sometimes compared to brown rice, as it has a similar chewy texture. The grain can be used in many ways. Adding freekeh to a stew or soup is a simple approach, but you can also find recipes that use freekeh as the main ingredient.
Millet is one of the more widely known ancient grains, although it is technically a seed. This makes it a pseudocereal – a term referring to seeds that are prepared and eaten in the same way as grains.
While millet is a common meal addition in some parts of the world, in the United States the seed is mostly just used in birdseed. It’s only recently started to become popular for human consumption, but millet does have some notable benefits.
To begin with, millet is entirely gluten free. It is also light, with a mild nutty flavor. These features make millet an easy addition to meals.
Millet can be cooked much the same way as rice or couscous. You simply bring it to boil with water and then simmer. Toasting the millet first can increase the nuttiness of the seed, although this step isn’t essential.
As you can probably guess, millet contains various beneficial nutrients, along with plant-based compounds. There is plenty of fiber in the seed too, which is always good news for digestive health.
Quinoa was almost unheard of at once point in time, but the pseudocereal seems to be almost everywhere these days. This isn’t too surprising either, as quinoa has an impressive balance of nutrients and other beneficial compounds.
For one thing, you get 8 grams of protein in a cup of cooked quinoa, along with roughly 5 grams of fiber. Key nutrients include manganese, magnesium, folate, zinc, and phosphorus.
Quinoa is easy to use too. It just needs to be boiled for 15 minutes or so. It can then be eaten warm or left to cool and used in a salad. Quinoa is often used as an alternative to rice in meals. It can be served as a side dish on its own too.
The popularity of quinoa isn’t only due to the pseudocereal’s nutritional profile. Quinoa also happens to have an appealing crunch and a slightly nutty flavor. This makes it more interesting than rice.
Amaranth is another ancient grain with resurging popularity. Like millet and quinoa, the amaranth that we use is technically a seed rather than a type of grain.
The term amaranth actually refers to a group of species. There are more than 60 different amaranth species, but only a few of these are cultivated for their seeds.
While amaranth is prepared in a similar way to quinoa and millet, there are some extra things to consider. One is the amount of water. You need a lot of water when cooking amaranth – as much as 6 cups of water for each cup of amaranth.
Soaking the amaranth for 8 to 24 hours is also important. While this step isn’t essential, soaking the grain is good for digestion and may increase nutrient availability.
Finally, amaranth is one of the few grains or pseudocereals that contains vitamin C. There are, of course, many sources of vitamin C, but an additional source is never a bad thing.
Barley is one of the few ancient grains that is a popular part of our modern diet. It is also easier to find than most other entries on this list and is relatively inexpensive. Those features alone make barley a good ancient grain to try.
While the grain’s nutritional profile isn’t unusual, barley is a good source of beta glucans. These are a type of soluble fiber.
Beta glucans have been linked to improvements in cholesterol profile and in heart health. They may also help to improve the balance of bacteria in your gut – an effect that has been linked to various health benefits.
Unfortunately, barley isn’t gluten free, so some people won’t be able to use the grain.
Don’t be fooled by the name. Buckwheat is another seed that we use as a grain. It isn’t even related to wheat and happens to be completely gluten free.
Like many such seeds, buckwheat has a slightly nutty flavor. The flavor is distinct enough to provide dishes with an interesting character, but mild enough that you can use buckwheat in sweet and savory meals.
Buckwheat’s protein content is a major reason to add it to your diet. There are various trace minerals present too, which help to give you a nutritional boost.
Plus, buckwheat tends to be inexpensive and easy to find – more so than many other items on this list. You’ll find that buckwheat is easy to prepare too, so you don’t need to spend hours messing around in the kitchen.
Sorghum might not have the same popularity as some other ancient grains, but it does still have important advantages. Like many other examples, the grain is a good source of fiber, protein, and iron. It is naturally free from cholesterol too and is not genetically modified.
You’ll sometimes see the grain sold in different ways. Whole grain sorghum uses all of the kernel, which includes the germ, endosperm, and bran. Some processing may have occurred, such as with cracked whole grain sorghum, but the nutrient profile should be similar regardless.
Pearled sorghum, on the other hand, involves the removal of the bran. Some of the germ is taken away too. Getting rid of these parts decreases the nutrients that sorghum offers, while making the seed softer. Pearled sorghum ends up being particularly good in soups and in salads.
Chia seeds have seen the same rapid rise in popularity as quinoa, but there are distinct differences between the two types of seeds. One distinction is how they are used. Quinoa tends to be cooked in a similar way to rice, while chia seeds are eaten whole without cooking.
For example, you’ll often see chia seeds included in drinks or sprinkled on top of meals. They’re especially good as a smoothie ingredient, as this is an easy way to get extra nutrients in your diet.
When you mix chia seeds with liquid, things get interesting. The seeds form a type of gel. This makes them appealing as a thickener or as an egg alternative. Chia pudding is a popular way to take advantage of this gelatinous texture.
Rye is another ancient grain that you’ll often find in our modern diets. It is often considered healthier than wheat, as rye offers more nutrients, while also being lower in digestible carbs.
Rye also happens to be a powerful source of fiber. Because of this, rye products can be a good way to relieve constipation and help keep people regular.
The benefits of rye are one reason that rye bread is often recommended as a healthier option than white bread. But, once again, rye isn’t gluten free, and some people won’t be able to tolerate the grain.
Teff is easily the smallest grain on this list and is thought to be the smallest in the world. Just like with chia seeds, the small size doesn’t mean that the grain is lacking. Instead, teff offers various desirable nutrients.
In fact, a 100 gram serving of uncooked teff provides much more than your daily intake of manganese, and close to your daily intake of copper and vitamin C. The inclusion of vitamin C is unusual. Few grains have significant amounts of this nutrient.
There are other essential nutrients too, including magnesium, phosphorous, and iron.
Finally, teff is gluten free, making this a versatile grain that most people can enjoy. It is still a little hard to find in some places, but if you don’t get lucky at your local grocery store, you could always order the grain online.
We mentioned millet earlier in this list. Fonio is a specific type of millet. It is mostly consumed in West Africa, although the popularity of ancient grains means that fonio is starting to turn up elsewhere too.
There is a black variety and a white variety of this grain. The nutritional profiles of the varieties are likely to be similar, although the two types will have some differences in plant-based nutrients.
Fonio isn’t as nutrient-dense as many other ancient grains on this list. The amount of protein and fiber is lower too. Still, fonio is interesting as a source of iron and simply as a different type of grain to try.
It may also be good as a source of resistant starch. While this type of starch isn’t digested, it can act as a food source for gut bacteria. As such, fonio can help to improve the balance of bacteria in your gut and promote better health by doing so.