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Nutrition

Get excited about nutrition, and learn as you go with these information-packed resources on a wide variety of nutrition-centric topics! Our bistroMD experts review the importance of the macronutrients protein, fat, and carbohydrates, as well as how to make them work most efficiently for you.

Ancient Grains Offer Exciting & Nutritious Twist to Any Diet

Gone are the days of resorting to brown rice as a grain staple. Shake up your grain rotation with these exciting and nutritious ancient grains!

Ancient Grains Offer Exciting & Nutritious Twist to Any Diet


Ancient grains are making quite the comeback. To those asking, "What are ancient grains?", we have the answer!

We have broken down the science of these ancient grains to understand what makes them legendary. This is without the confusion of the mystery or myth that often surrounds them!

Read on to find out exactly what ancient grains are, how to prepare them, and more information about their nutritional value.

What Are Ancient Grains?

Ancient grains, loosely defined by the Whole Grains Council, are grains that have remained largely unchanged over the last several centuries. These grains have been studied intensely since they suggest a healthier nutritional profile than modern kinds of wheat, which are constantly bred and changed. They are thought to provide advanced nutrition and health benefits to their consumers.

Ancient grain varieties typically have more anti-inflammatory effects than more modern grain strains. Some ancient grains are gluten-free, but it is important to check with a registered health professional such as a physician or dietitian before consuming these grains as someone who is intolerant of or allergic to gluten.

Ancient Grains in the Wheat Family

Farro, kamut, spelt, and more are a part of the wheat family. Give these ancient grains in the wheat family a try:

Einkorn: high in protein and nutrients while being mild in flavor

Emmer/farro: savory in flavor and also rich in fiber and magnesium

Kamut®: nutty flavor and packed with fiber, protein, minerals, selenium, and manganese

Spelt: high in protein and fiber with a distinctive nutty flavor and chewy texture (often used as a substitute for pasta or rice)

Other Ancient Grains

From millet to quinoa, consider adding these ancient grain products to your ancient grain rotation:

Barley: a great source of fiber, vitamin B1, and other nutrients, and is best cooked in bigger batches

Bulgur: high in protein and manganese

Sorghum: some varieties are high in antioxidants; used as a substitute for wheat flour in baking due to neutral flavor with a slight sweetness

Teff: tiny in size but packed with calcium and other nutrients

Millet: small, whole grain that is heart-healthy and rich in many minerals

Quinoa: a popular ancient grain, and also a complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids as well as higher levels of iron and phosphorus

Amaranth: has higher levels of protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin C while remaining easy to cook and crunchy in texture

Freekeh: young green wheat that is full of fiber, minerals, and can be incorporated easily into a stir-fry, risotto, or soup

How to Prepare Ancient Grains

It can be daunting to try something new, but ancient grains are easy to prepare and follow many of the same simple steps as more common conventional grains.

Toss in a Salad

Looking for something simple? It does not get more simple than this simple barley salad recipe!

(More plant-based salad recipes below!)

Cook with a Book

If a little inspiration is needed to kickstart the cooking, an ancient grains cookbook can be a great place to start.

Cookbooks can help create pleasing plates and pair grains with other foods that help make a complete nutritious meal.

Prepare a Hot Dish

The most popular recipes with common grains are hot cereal combinations. Pancakes and waffles can also be a safe bet when taking a first attempt at ancient grains.

Try mixing ancient grains into a breakfast dish or cook up a delicious cranberry and feta farro salad, which can be served hot or cold.

Start the Quest with Quinoa

Quinoa is an incredibly versatile ancient grain, pairing well with many flavors and seasonings. It can be incorporated into almost any meal, including these ideas:

• Mix it with milk, fruit, cinnamon, nuts, or nut butter as a warm breakfast.

• Transform quinoa into a lunch component with seasonal greens, herbs, or spices.

• Substitute quinoa for the rice in a stir fry can up the nutrients on a dinner plate.

Unsure where to begin? Try our Mediterranean quinoa salad or fresh tabbouleh salad with quinoa recipe (which contains more than one ancient grain).

Decide: Main Dish or Side?

Many people do not know if ancient grains should be an appetizer or the center of the plate. Either way, ancient grains can be introduced to a healthy eating plan!

Try substituting ancient grains for ones used more commonly, such as bulgur in place of oats. Farro can be added to soups or used in a risotto. Quinoa can turn into a side dish salad or offer nutrients and texture to baked goods. Really, the possibilities are nearly endless!

When in Doubt, Ask a Dietitian

Dietitians can introduce new foods into the diet and suggest ways to cook them. It can be helpful to have the guidance of a dietitian in evaluating nutrition labels and learning how to spot highly processed products that mask nutrient-poor content.

Ancient Grains Nutritional Value

The popularity of ancient grains has surged during the past decade and has many people wondering if their legendary benefits are fact or fiction.

The higher nutritional value of whole versus refined grains has been well established, but what about ancient grains?

What the Research Shows

Researchers evaluating the effects of ancient grains on human cells can confirm that these grains hold potential health benefits. Many ancient grains studied have shown positive characteristics and provide evidence that consuming ancient grains may be nutritionally important. This is largely due to the fact that most ancient grains are consumed as a whole grain.

In other words, grains can be both whole and ancient. This allows for various amounts of nutrients to be available, including protein, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber.

Whole grains and legumes such as barley, bulgur, millet, sorghum, and farro are considered one of the top categories of cancer-fighting foods. Ancient wheat varieties have shown convincing beneficial effects when linked to the following conditions:

• Cardio-metabolic diseases, including lipid and glycemic profiles
• Inflammatory and oxidative stress
• Development of type 2 diabetes
• Diabetes and cancer risk
• Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
• Intestinal inflammation and/or permeability
• Stroke
• Heart disease
• Colorectal and other cancers

Another upside of ancient grains is that many thrive with lower use of pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation. Such qualities appeal to consumers wanting to eat more environmentally-minded.

As part of a balanced diet, eating an assortment of ancient grains and whole grains alike ensures that nutrient needs are being met.

Grams to Grains

In general, ancient grains are packed with much more fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals than modern grains.

Farro, with only 1/4 cup (45 grams), provides 6 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber, and is fat and sugar-free.

Teff provides 10 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber per cup when cooked.

• One cup of cooked bulgur contains 33 percent of the fiber recommended dietary allowance in addition to 5.6 grams of protein.

Quinoa offers an impressive 6 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber per 1/4 cup dry serving.

Overall, each ancient grain has a unique nutrient profile but all offer a variety of important vitamins and minerals. And whether using amaranth, quinoa, or another ancient grain, they add fiber and protein to a balanced diet.

The Bottom Line

Ancient grain varieties offer amazing amounts of protein, fiber, and other nutrients. They can also be used in many culinary ways, including as a warm cereal or chilled salad.

So while ancient grains do not have an official definition, they can officially be part of a balanced diet!

References:

Bordoni A, Danesi F, Di Nunzio M, Taccari A, Valli V. Ancient wheat and health: a legend or the reality? A review on KAMUT khorasan wheat. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2017;68(3):278-286. doi:10.1080/09637486.2016.1247434

Burke N, Karsies D, Shannon-Hagen M. Ancient grains are powerhouses of nutrition and can reduce your risk for cancer. U-M Rogel Cancer Center Symptom Management and Supportive Care Team. 2020. https://www.rogelcancercenter.org/living-with-cancer/mind-body-side-effects/nutrition/eat-king-tut-ancient-grains.

Dinu M, Whittaker A, Pagliai G, Benedettelli S, Sofi F. Ancient wheat species and human health: Biochemical and clinical implications. J Nutr Biochem. 2018;52:1-9. doi:10.1016/j.jnutbio.2017.09.001.

Dinu M, Whittaker A, Pagliai G, et al. A Khorasan Wheat-Based Replacement Diet Improves Risk Profile of Patients With Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD): A Randomized Clinical Trial. J Am Coll Nutr. 2018;37(6):508-514. doi:10.1080/07315724.2018.1445047

Getz L. Enjoying Ancient Grains. Today's Dietitian. 2014;16(9):46. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/090114p46.shtml#:~:text=The%20so%2Dcalled%20ancient%20grains,well%2Dbalanced%20and%20nutritious%20diet.

Godman H. The whole grain goodness of modern and ancient grains. Harvard Medical School. 2016. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/ancient-vs-modern-grains-theyre-good-201606299876.

Old Ways Whole Grains Council. What is an ancient grain. Whole Grains Council. 2020. https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/whats-whole-grain/ancient-grains.

Spisni E, Imbesi V, Giovanardi E, Petrocelli G, Alvisi P, Valerii MC. Differential Physiological Responses Elicited by Ancient and Heritage Wheat Cultivars Compared to Modern Ones. Nutrients. 2019;11(12):2879. Published 2019 Nov 26. doi:10.3390/nu11122879

Trozzi C, Raffaelli F, Vignini A, Nanetti L, Gesuita R, Mazzanti L. Evaluation of antioxidative and diabetes-preventive properties of an ancient grain, KAMUT® khorasan wheat, in healthy volunteers. Eur J Nutr. 2019;58(1):151-161. doi:10.1007/s00394-017-1579-8

Valli V, Taccari A, Di Nunzio M, Danesi F, Bordoni A. Health benefits of ancient grains. Comparison among bread made with ancient, heritage and modern grain flours in human cultured cells. Food Res Int. 2018;107:206-215. doi:10.1016/j.foodres.2018.02.032

Webb D. Hottest Nutrition Trends of 2016: Ancient Grains. Today's Dietitian. 2016;18(8):44. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0816p44.shtml.

Sarah Asay's Photo
Written By Sarah Asay, RDN. Published on January 05, 2021. Updated on February 12, 2021.

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