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

November 30, 2020

By Ashley Rinehart, Student of North Carolina Central University’s Dietetics Program and Intern at Duke Diet & Fitness Center with the supervision of the Duke Diet & Fitness Center Nutrition Team.

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.”

All grains are rich in fiber, protein, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, copper, and zinc but each grain brings something unique to the table.

 

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”. – Christine Tenekjian.”

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 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.

Try this one to replace your go-to starchy side dish:

Herbed Farro with Feta

 

Ingredients:

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!

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