Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Ancient Grains
No food category is more tricky to understand than grains. Some experts say to avoid them completely; some tell us to eat only sprouted grains; and still others say that ancient grains are the ones we should be focusing on. What’s a person who enjoys carbs to put on their plate amidst all this confusion?
One thing that nutrition experts do generally do agree on is that all whole foods offer health benefits, and grains are no exception to that. As for whether there are more benefits to ancient grains than there are to modern ones, that’s what we’re here to break down for you. We asked two PhD dietitians for their takes on this food category, and we’ll be sharing everything you need to know about ancient grains: What they really are, why they deserve a place at your table, and how you can best cook them.
What categorizes a food as an ancient grain?
The term “ancient” pertains to grains that have remained unchanged over time. “Ancient grains are the seeds/kernels of plants/grasses that are consumed like grains, all around the world, that have not changed or been adulterated from how they were historically grown,” says Dana Ellis Hunnes PhD, MPH, RD, author of Recipe for Survival.
These ingredients have been grown and harvested without being changed for anywhere from centuries to millennia, says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, MA, RDN, who notes that while many ancient grains are new to us in the west, they’ve been consumed for ages by indigenous cultures around the planet.
Four ancient grains we love
Now that you have a clear understanding of what constitutes an ancient grain, you’re probably wondering which grains you know can be categorized as them. It turns out, quite a few: these are the most popular and nutritious within the ancient grain category.
The perfect example of a seed that’s used as a grain, chia has taken the long journey from health food to mainstream and is now known, if not eaten, by most people. It’s been around since at least 3500 BCE, and has long been prized for its ability to pack so many nutrients into one tiny package. “It has a complete protein, the essential fat ALA omega-3, it’s high in fiber, and holds water,” Bazilian says.
It’s also a sustainable crop. “Growing chia requires no human irrigation — it only relies on rain and a climate that is humid,” she says, noting that chia is often still grown by small, indigenous farms. Hunnes points out that in addition to being available as a seed, chia is also sold as a flour and an oil, both of which offer similar benefits to the seed.
This grain is still finding its way onto people’s tables, but it’s been in our beer and animal feed supply for a long time. Sorghum is a highly sustainable food, generally requiring only rain water for irrigation. Hunnes appreciates its fiber and protein content, which are superior to most other whole grains, as well as its texture. Sorghum is on the chewy side, similar to brown rice but slightly more toothsome. It can be made softer by soaking before cooking.
Despite being vilified for containing gluten, barley is a highly nutritious ancient grain. It’s best known for being used in soups, where it keeps its texture better in liquid than pasta or other whole grains can. “Barley has beta-glucans,” says Hunnes, which is a specific type of fiber that boosts immunity, stabilizes blood sugar, and is healthy for the cardiovascular system. “Pearled barley has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries as well,” Bazilian adds.
Bazilian also informs us that “spent barley can be used to provide quality plant protein, fiber, and other nutrients, too.” It’s upcycled after it’s used to brew beer, which makes it particularly sustainable. Despite having already been used in commercial beer production, spent barley is still suitable for human consumption, and offers many nutrients.
Eaten for millennia by people in South America before it made its way north to our culinary lexicon, quinoa is surely the most well-known ancient grain. “Botanically, it’s actually a seed, but because it has qualities similar to whole grains in terms of nutrition, and how it ‘fits’ in our diet and on our plates (the grain or carb ‘real estate’ on the plate), we call it an ancient grain,” Bazilian tells us. Quinoa is similar in taste and texture to couscous, which is a pasta product, and it easily replaces couscous in a variety of recipes — which is one of the reasons it has become such a mainstay in our culture.
In addition to these ancient grains, there are many others that offer myriad health benefits, including farro, teff, amaranth, kamut, freekeh, rye, bulgur, and millet.
The differences between ancient grains and modern ones
Ancient grains are those that continue to be grown in the same manner as they originally were, without intervention. Modern grains, on the other hand, are often changing. “Farmers can do natural selection and breeding in innovative ways to choose seeds that have certain qualities: taste, nutrition, heartiness, size, ability to grow in certain climates, even color,” says Bazilian. “In the last century, science has allowed for many advancements.” The most notorious among these is wheat, which in its ancient forms, such as kamut, is very different from its modern version.
Hunnes notes that many modern grains are genetically modified, whereas no ancient grains are. Genetic modification can be beneficial (think golden rice) but in some instances, plants are engineered to be more resistant to pesticides or even produce pesticides on their own. Hunnes says that because organically-grown ancient grains never have chemical residues of pesticides like glyphosate, they are better tolerated by some people.
As for whether ancient grains are healthier, the answer is actually fairly simple: yes, they often are. “They are often higher in fiber, have a higher vitamin and mineral concentration, may have better fat compositions, and more protein than other modified grains,” says Hunnes.
The act of adding vitamins back into refined grains is a common one — and it’s not needed for ancient grains. “An enriched grain has some but not all of the nutrients that exist in the whole grain. In fact, up to 90% of some micronutrients are lost in the refining process,” says Bazilian. She notes that the act of enriching refined grains was a problem solver for public health issues including vitamin deficiencies and mineral insufficiencies that started in the 1950s. Whether those health issues would have occurred had we not been refining grains in the first place is, of course, an important question.
Delicious ways to enjoy ancient grains
Now that we’re fully aware of how healthful ancient grains are, we get to the fun part: How to eat them! Here are some suggestions for how to integrate more ancient grains into your diet.
This chilled grain salad is typically made with bulgur, but you can sub out any other grain you like. “You can follow a traditional tabouleh recipe with vegetables and parsley, and swap the grain,” Bazilian advises. Tabouleh offers the health benefits of raw garlic, paired with flavorful heaps of fresh parsley.
Fermenting the teff grain gives it a tangy, sharp flavor similar to sourdough. It’s then turned into the thin, pancake-like bread known as injera, which is a staple of Ethiopian cuisine. In lieu of silverware, people use the bread to scoop up various vegetable and meat stews.
This use is limited to chia, and if you’ve never tried a chia jam, you’re in for a surprise: it’s incredibly simple to use chia seeds as the thickening agent for jam, and a great change from chia pudding if you’ve had your fill of that. “Use it in nut butter sandwiches, on toast, with yogurt or cottage cheese, or as a topping for waffles, pancakes, and ice cream,” says Bazilian.
4. Grain Bowls
A bit of a no-brainer here: Ancient grains make an excellent base for assorted vegetables, proteins, and sauces. Grain bowls give you the perfect opportunity to decide exactly how much of each ingredient category is right for you; some choose to add heaping scoops of grains and vegetables, while others go heavier on the proteins and toppings.
Barley isn’t the only ancient grain that’s great for soup. Any that hold up well after cooking, such as sorghum, can also be used. Curious where to begin? “In a minestrone-style or bean soup, you can always add ancient grains,” Bazilian tells us.
Corn is the usual grain used for this porridge, but numerous others also work well, too. One of my dishes that has always entranced private chef clients is a version of polenta: I cook millet down into a porridge, then spread it thin on a parchment lined baking sheet. Once chilled, I sliced it into triangles, drizzle with some EVOO, and roasted it in the oven. The result is crunchy, creamy polenta triangles that can be dipped into a sauce or topped with a spread.
7. Baked Goods
Because so many ancient grains are available as flours, it’s easy to swap out a fraction of the less healthful grains in your recipes for them. You can use ancient grain flours like sorghum, quinoa, or millet as you would rice flour. Exercise caution with flours that absorb water, such as chia; to experiment with absorbent grains, you’ll want to begin by following recipes.