Ancient Grains

We’ve all heard of them – who could miss them? But who actually uses them, other than buying cereal/bars touting their containment?


Amaranth. Spelt. Bulgar. Chia seeds. Farro. Quinoa. Millet. Sorghum. Teff. Freekeh. Kamut. This is not an extensive list, but covers most of the main players. Part of the problem of making such a list is that there is no official definition of ‘ancient grains.’ All whole grains in the larger sense are “ancient” — they all can trace their roots back to the beginnings of time.

At the Whole Grains Council, they generally define ancient grains loosely as “grains that are largely unchanged over the last several hundred years”. This means that modern wheat, which has been constantly bred and changed, is not an ancient grain. There are, however, other members of the wheat family that are – einkorn, farro, kamut and spelt, for example.

Heirloom varieties of other common grains — such as black barley, red and black rice, blue corn — might also be considered ancient grains. Sometimes less common grains, like buckwheat, or wild rice, are also included. So you see, although the actual definition may be a little tricky, there are so many choices out there, it is actually pretty easy nowadays to avoid the over processed modern wheat.

But why should we eat ancient grains? Well, if the “over processed” part of modern wheat was not a big enough clue, try the fact that modern wheat contains very little actual nutrition, particularly when compared to a varied diet containing other grains instead.

All the ancient grains are more nutritious than modern wheat, however each has their own strengths. Many thrive with lower levels of pesticides, fertilizers, and many are also grown organically, making them an attractive choice. However, the best way to ensure that you’re getting the full spectrum of nutrients is, as always, to eat a variety! Each grain has a different strength to offer so by choosing different ones over the course of a week you will get a good coverage of their nutritional values.

Consider trying some of the following in your diet. All are available in most supermarkets today.


A staple food of the Aztecs, Amaranth comes from an herb plant.  The tiny yellow spheres are high in protein (13-14%) and have a mellow peppery flavor. Amaranth is jam-packed with calcium and is also high in iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium.  It’s also the only grain documented to contain Vitamin C.  It’s naturally gluten-free!  Amaranth can be cooked as a breakfast porridge or can be eaten “puffed”, like popped corn.


Barley is the highest in fiber of almost all the whole grains.  Studies have shown barley provides many health benefits, including reducing the risk of many diseases, such as heart disease. You can cook it as a side dish, bake it in bread, add it to soups, eat it as a breakfast porridge, or grind it to use as flour to bake cookies.  Barley may take longer to cook (about 50-60 minutes), but it freezes well, so cook a big batch at one time and freeze the extra for later.


Bulgur, sometimes called cracked wheat, is made from wheat (most often durum wheat). Bulgur has more fiber than quinoa, oats, millet, buckwheat or corn. Because bulgur is precooked and dried, it cooks in about the same time as pasta, making it a great option for fast meals


Farro, also known as Emmer, is an ancient strain of wheat and the oldest cultivated grain in the world. It is high in fiber and a good source of iron and protein. Farro puffs like rice when cooked but is still slightly chewy.


Millet is gluten-free and high in antioxidants and magnesium, which makes it helpful in controlling diabetes and inflammation.  Millet grains are usually small and yellowish in color and have a light flavor. Millet can be eaten as a pilaf, breakfast cereal, or added to breads, soups or stews.  It can also be popped like corn and eaten as a whole grain snack!


This nutty, gluten-free “grain” (actually a seed) contains all essential amino acids, making it a complete protein – the only grain that is. It is a good source of dietary fiber and is also highest of all the whole grains in potassium. Another advantage of quinoa is that it cooks quickly, in about 15 minutes!  You can tell it’s done when the little white tail– the germ of the kernel – is sticking out.  Quinoa can be substituted anywhere whole grains are used, and is a great addition to pilafs, soups, breads, and salads.


Spelt is higher in protein than common wheat, is high in fiber and is a good source of iron and manganese.  Some people who are sensitive to wheat report being able to more easily digest and tolerate spelt, but spelt is NOT gluten-free. It has a chewy texture and sweet, nutlike flavor. In its whole grain form it is a great option as a hot cereal or for use in pilafs, soups or salads.  Spelt flour works great for bread, pasta and baked goods.

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