Ancient Grains and What They Mean for Your Health

Have you heard the term “ancient grains?” You may have seen it on labels for cereal, crackers, breads or even pasta. Sounds like a better, healthier or fancier form of flour, right? Don’t be too sure. Let’s uncover the facts.

What to Know Before You Buy

Are the grains really all that ancient? The funny thing is that we have been eating all of these unprocessed whole foods for thousands of years. It would be similar to classifying apples as ancient. Isn’t all whole food ancient?

It may be true that some of these “ancient grains” are not produced on such a massive, global scale as our wheat and corn crops. Some like to think this makes “ancient grains” healthier because they are not as overproduced and, therefore, must be more nutrient-rich.

True or not, I will still choose quinoa products over wheat when I have the chance because this one particular grain provides me with a complete protein and more overall nutrition.

But what about the other grains? Let’s check them out.

Quinoa

This one may be my all-time favorite for its balanced nutritional profile. Quinoa contains all of the essential amino acids necessary to make a complete protein in our bodies.

Kamut

Also known as Khorasan, this is probably my least favorite simply due to taste (most often described as nutty or buttery). Kamut likely originated in Egypt or Iran. Kamut does contain more nutrients than traditional wheat.

Farro

When I think of farro, it brings to memory this tasty Giada De Laurentiis recipe for a mac ‘n cheese-style farro. The grain flavor is nuttier and richer tasting, and one of the more expensive grains. If you are preparing whole-grain farro, make sure to soak it overnight before cooking to allow softening of the grain.

Different grains are called “farro” in different countries — for instance, in some areas of the world, barley or spelt can be called farro. The largest size farro is technically called spelt. But, the smaller-sized grains are also likely referred to as farro. This may seem confusing, I know. If you want to learn more, NPR did a pretty good job explaining it.

The main takeaway is that farro has depth of flavor and more fiber and nutrients (zinc, B vitamins) than many other grains.

Millet

When I think of millet, I think of birdseed. But we can eat it, too! Millet is gluten-free, traditional to West Africa, and is not a rich source of nutrients although it does contain some healthy minerals. One cup cooked is a good source of manganese and magnesium, for example.

Spelt

Spelt is perhaps the oldest grain and dates back to the BCE years! Spelt is a type of wheat, and its nutrition facts are similar to common wheat.

Amaranth

Amaranth reminds me of the flour used in graham crackers, one of my favorite comfort snacks! Amaranth has high nutritional and protein value similar to quinoa. When made into flour, it is not as palatable, but the seed is often cooked to make a sort of porridge — it reminds me of an oatmeal version of quinoa. I predict amaranth will become the next popular healthy grain for its excellent nutritional value. One cup cooked contains 9 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber and 29 percent of your daily value for iron!



Bottom Line: Read the nutrition facts before you buy. Read the ingredient label and make sure your first ingredient reads “whole wheat” or “whole oat,” “whole brown rice” or “whole spelt”, etc. Grains are healthy so long as we eat them in their most natural, whole form.

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Nicole German Morgan, RD, LD
Nicole German Morgan, RD, LD is an Atlanta-based registered dietitian and blogger behind Nicole’s Nutrition. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram.