Ancient Grains: What Are They And What Are Their Health Benefits?

by Head Health Nutter on October 1, 2016

I’ve been trying ancient grains over the past few years and have been pleasantly surprised time and again! I cannot wait to try some of them mentioned in today’s article by guest blogger, Jon Baner.

Whether you’re an old hand at choosing the most nutritious foods for yourself and your family, or whether you’ve just started looking into how to create a more health-conscious diet, you’ve probably come across the term “ancient grains." If so, you may have some questions. Just what are ancient grains? Are they really more nutritious than more commonly used grains like wheat and oats? Do they have a place in a healthy, balanced diet?

If you’re asking these questions and trying to decide whether or not to include ancient grains in your diet, read on! This article will answer all the questions you have about ancient grains, and maybe even a few you didn’t even think to ask.

Closeup on pile of organic quinoa grain in bowlWhat are ancient grains? The term “ancient grains" (also called “heritage grains") refers to a group of grains and seeds that were first cultivated for use as foods in the ancient world. The Whole Grains Council takes the definition one step further by stipulating that these are grains that have remained “largely unchanged" over the past few hundred years.

Ancient grains originated all over the globe: Quinoa, for example, was first grown by the Incans in South America; farro once fed Rome’s mighty army of legionaries; and amaranth was a staple of the Aztec people. Some ancient grains can still be found in abundance in the modern diet and may sound familiar to you, millet, for example.

Others were nearly lost to history. Kamut, or khorasan wheat, was saved from obscurity when a U.S. airman sent a handful of seeds he found in Egypt home to his father who just happened to be a wheat farmer.

What health benefits might come from a diet rich in ancient grains? Ancient grains offer all the health benefits of more traditional whole grains. All whole grains, according to WebMD are “packed with nutrients." Their naturally occurring fiber, protein, antioxidants and B vitamins can help reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, weight gain and cancer.

Ancient grains bring all of these benefits “to the table” while also adding variety to our diets. Since most of the whole grains found in the average American diet come in the form of wheat, corn and oats, these grains can become over-represented. They can be found in as diverse a range of foods as catsup, canned soups, chili, salad dressing and soy sauce. Including ancient grains in your diet adds diversity.

Individual ancient grains each have distinct potential health benefits, as well. Check out the list below:

  • Farro — An ancient variety of wheat, farro is high in fiber, zinc and vitamin B-3.
  • Quinoa — Pronounced “keen-wah," this healthy grain offers high-quality protein, healthy fats and B vitamins like folate — an essential nutrient for pregnant mothers. It is also a good wheat substitute for people avoiding gluten.
  • Sorghum — Sorghum originated on the African continent. It is gluten free and high in antioxidants.
  • Millet — This mild flavored grain can be added to casseroles or eaten as a hot cereal. It is high in magnesium and some varieties have shown anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Teff — Teff is a food staple in Ethiopia. This small grain is usually eaten whole and is high in calcium, fiber and vitamin C.

Consider making ancient grains a staple of your menu plan. After all, they offer health benefits, variety, even a walk through diverse cultures and history. What more could you ask of something as simple as a humble grain?

About the Author

Jon Baner spent 4 years at Watershed Foods, LLC, most recently as Director of Research & Development with responsibility for product development and additional responsibilities for Quality and Regulatory. Prior to Watershed, Jon worked with Ringger Foods, Inc and Kerry Ingredients & Flavors in product applications, process technology, and technical training roles. He holds a degree in Food Science and Human Nutrition from the University of Illinois and is a Certified Food Scientist. Jon joined the PacMoore team in June 2014 as Senior Technical Manager, Extrusion and is leading the PacMoore extrusion initiative.

Did you learn anything new about ancient grains? Will you be trying any new ones soon?

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