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Ancient Grains: What Are They and Why Should We Eat Them?

April 26, 2019. Ancient grains are “grains that are largely unchanged over the last several hundred years. Ancient grains recently gained popularity in the US, coinciding with the increasing number of people opting for gluten-free diets. 

Written by Ashley Rinehart, Student of North Carolina Central University’s Dietetics Program and Intern at Duke Diet & Fitness Center.

What’s an “Ancient” Grain?

The Whole Grains Council loosely defines ancient grains as “grains that are largely unchanged over the last several hundred years.” Ancient grains recently gained popularity in the US, coinciding with the increasing number of people opting for gluten-free diets. Not all ancient grains are gluten-free, but many of them are. This makes them a great alternative for those looking to consume less gluten without resorting to the overly processed (and expensive) gluten-free alternatives that have recently flooded supermarket shelves. 

Ancient grains include:

  • Einkorn
  • Emmer/Farro
  • Kamut
  • Spelt
  • Sorghum
  • Teff
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Amaranth

And other grains that are sometimes considered “ancient” are:

  • Black barely
  • Red and black rice
  • Blue corn
  • Buckwheat
  • Wild rice

“Ancient grains are nutritionally equivalent to more modern whole grains” (like your whole wheat flour, brown rice, and oats), however the reason you want to incorporate them into a healthy meal plan is simple: “Variety”.

Are they Better than Modern Whole Grains?

Many people perceive ancient grains as more nutritious than modern grains. Nutrition and Dietetics professionals don’t always agree on this. According to Christine Tenekjian, MPH, RDN, LDN, Dietitian Clinician at Duke University Diet and Fitness Center, “ancient grains are nutritionally equivalent to more modern whole grains” (like your whole wheat flour, brown rice, and oats), however the reason you want to incorporate them into a healthy meal plan is simple: “Variety”.

What do you mean by “Variety”?

All grains are rich in fiber, protein, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, copper, and zinc but each grain brings something unique to the table. For example, quinoa is the most protein dense packing in 8g per cup, while teff contains double the amount of calcium as spinach. By incorporating different whole grains into your diet, both ancient and modern, you consume a wide variety of nutrients that your body needs to maintain optimal health.

On the other hand, humans are not robots and it’s in our nature to find enjoyment and excitement in our food. If you get tired of eating the same healthy meals every day, try swapping out the grains for something different. For example, next time you make stir fry try serving it with quinoa instead of rice. It cooks faster, has more protein, and it provides a different flavor and texture to the meal. Another simple swap is millet or amaranth for oatmeal, like this recipe for Banana Millet Porridge.

Here at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center, we have many recipes in the menu rotation that incorporate different grains. Dishes such as Hearty Oatmeal Apple Pancakes, Cauliflower Quinoa Pilaf, and Fresh Herb & Lemon Bulgur Pilaf appear as options along with the Herbed Farro with Feta recipe below. Try this one to replace your go-to starchy side dish.

Herbed Farro with Feta

Herbed farro salad with feta.jpg

Ancient Grains
Ancient Grains Recipe

1½ cups farro

4 cups no salt added vegetable or chicken broth (or water)

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley

2 tablespoons fresh chopped basil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon lemon juice

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

¼ cup crumbled feta cheese

Directions:

Measure farro into a fine mesh sieve and rinse with cold water. Drain.

Transfer to a medium-sized pot that has a lid. Add the broth. Bring to a boil over high heat.

Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 25-30 minutes, until it is softened but still chewy. If there is liquid remaining in the pot, drain it off or save it to add to a soup, stew or sauce.

While farro is still very hot, use a fork to gently fluff in the olive oil, herbs, garlic, lemon juice, salt, pepper and feta. Serve warm. Leftovers from this dish could also be served cold, added to a salad, or added to soups or stews.

Now that you see how many healthy grain options you have, try cooking something new tonight!

Take the First Step

You may also be interested in:

Is Gluten Bad for Me?

Five Tips to Get Started on the Mediterranean Diet

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