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Ancient Grains of the World, and How to Add them to your Diet

Ancient grains have been growing in popularity in the last few decades. You can now find them stocked in traditional grocery stores and popping up on the menus of restaurants across the world. These grains often have a long and storied history, having been consumed and cultivated for thousands of years in various countries before their ultimate popularity in the modern world.

There are many varieties of ancient grains available to us now, with options for people with all types of dietary and health needs. As a whole, ancient grains are most nutritious than their modern predecessors, often touting large amounts of amino acids, vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients.

Another common trait of many (but not all) ancient grains is that they are very hardy. They are able to grow in a variety of climates and situations (such as waterlogged soil and droughts). This makes many ancient grains important food sources for many third-world or poor communities. This hardiness has also helped to keep these particular grain varieties growing for thousands of years. Grains were often used in trade many years ago, and therefore can be found growing on all corners of the earth.

Grains classified as ‘ancient grains’ have been, as the Whole Grains Council puts it, “largely unchanged over the last several hundred years.” These grains include amaranth, barley, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum, teff, and wheat.

Amaranth

Amaranth is a pseudocereal that is native to Peru. This tiny grain is incredibly popular in Mexico where it is popped and made into crispy treats and an essential part of celebrations such as Dia de los Muertos. In ancient Aztec culture, amaranth was part of their everyday diet and life as well as important ceremonies, where it was offered to the gods. When Spanish explorers came upon the Aztec civilization, they were intent on converting them to christianity. Because the Aztecs used amaranth as an important part of many religious ceremonies, the Spanish banned the growth and possession of the grain, persecuting anyone that did not follow this ban. Luckily for us, the grain was not completely lost during this devastating and oppressive time.   

Amaranth has many nutritional benefits that make it great part of a healthy diet. It contains high levels of vitamin C, iron, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus. In some studies, amaranth has shown to contain comparable amounts of calcium to some cheeses. Amaranth is one of only a few plants that are complete proteins, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. The earthy and nutty grain is naturally gluten-free and may help to lower cholesterol levels and promote heart health. Along with the seeds of the amaranth plant, the leaves are also edible and very nutritious.

Amaranth Cereal Bars: Click here

Amaranth Squares: Click here

Barley

Barley has many applications beyond just eating, it is even an important component to the beer-making process. Evidence of the cultivation of barley was found in the Fertile Crescent and could date back as many as 10,000 years. Barley is one of the eight founder crops of early agriculture, helping to pave the way for modern agriculture and crop cultivation.

The nutritional benefits of barley make it no surprise that this grain is enjoyed all over the world. Since the protein fiber found in barley is present in the whole grain, not just the outer hull like is the case with many other grains, it has one of the highest fiber contents of all grains. Whole grain barley is also high in protein, vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants. When shopping for barley, be sure to pick out the whole grain variety not the pearled. The pearled varieties of barley do not contain as many nutrients or health benefits as whole grain barley.

Smarter Barley Soup: Click here

Wild Rice Breakfast Cereal: Click here

Buckwheat

A pseudocereal like amaranth, buckwheat is a native plant of Asia and is thought to have been cultivated as many as 8,000 years ago. Throughout the years, buckwheat was traded among civilizations and became an integral part of many cuisines all over the world, from Japanese soba noodles to buckwheat crepes popular in Canada and France.  Buckwheat is a popular crop for beekeepers to grow for their bees to collect nectar from because the it results in a dark and strong flavored honey.

The pyramid-shaped buckwheat seeds are high in protein, is a great source of soluble fiber, contains zinc, potassium, manganese, copper, and is a great source of amino acids. The soluble fiber found is buckwheat is important to help slow the digestion process and is important for diabetics as it helps control blood glucose levels.

Herb-Buckwheat Groats: Click here

Chocolate Hearts: Click here

Millet

When most people in America see millet, the first thing they think of is birdseed, as millet is one of the most popular components in many bird seed mixes. Millet was first cultivated in China almost 8,000 years ago. With the help of nomadic shepherds, millet soon travels throughout Asia and into parts of Europe. The hardy millet was a great choice for these farmers, because it does not need much attention and grows quite quickly compared to many other grains and seeds.

Millet is naturally gluten-free and is high in magnesium and antioxidants. There is also research suggesting that adding millet to your diet may help improve inflammation and control diabetes symptoms. Millet can be used in a variety of ways, including being made into a porridge, mixed into cakes and breads, and tossed into salads.

Date Almond Cookies: Click here

Steamed Millet: Click here

Quinoa

The star of the superfood world, quinoa has become more and more popular in the past 20 plus years. A pseudocereal native to Peru, quinoa was a sacred food to the Inca people. Called the “Mother Grain” of the Inca civilization, it was used in everything from meals and rituals to offerings to the gods. Quinoa was almost completely wiped out when the Spanish explorers came to what is now Peru and destroyed the quinoa crops for similar reasons as the destruction of amaranth. The only quinoa that survived this destruction was high up in the Andes Mountains.

Quinoa, again like amaranth, is a complete protein. Most quinoa varieties are gluten-free [link to quinoa megasite], but if you have celiac disease you should look into the particular varieties to make sure they are safe for you to eat.

Mexican Quinoa: Click here

Nutty Quinoa and Coconut Cookies [not exclusive]: Click here

Sorghum

Sorghum was collected and domesticated in Africa around 8,000 years ago. It is used for everything from cereal and syrup to animal feed and ethanol. It is likely that sorghum traveled to the United States on slave ships from Africa.

Naturally gluten-free sorghum is high in antioxidants, important for a healthy heart, and may even help to lower cholesterol levels. It is a good source of protein, iron, manganese, and protein. Like corn and amaranth, sorghum can be popped for a delicious and crunchy snack.

Celiac-Friendly Red Fruit Torte [not exclusive]: Click here

Wheat-free Fruited Soda Bread [not exclusive]: Click here

Teff

This tiny seed, smaller than a poppy seed, is native to Ethiopia where it has been part of a staple diet for hundred of years. The nutty grain grows in versatile environments, from those with a lot of water to those that suffer from droughts. Teff cooks quickly and can be ground into a flour that is great for gluten-free baking.

Teff is high in potassium, calcium, vitamin B6, magnesium, iron, and fiber. It is also a good source of resistant starch, which is beneficial for healthy digestion as it does not fully break down in the small intestine.

German Raisin Boule for Celiacs [not exclusive]: Click here

Wheat-free Olive Tear and Share Bread [not exclusive]: Click here

Wheat

There are many varieties of wheat that are part of the ancient grain family, including Kamut®, emmer, einkorn, durum, bulgur, and spelt. Unlike the other ancient grains, these wheat varieties are not gluten-free and therefore not safe for those with celiac disease to eat. However, in some studies people with gluten sensitivities were able to eat these ancient wheat varieties with little issue.

Adding whole, ancient wheat varieties to your diet can help with overall health including improved heart health, weight management, and a reduced risk of diabetes. Grains from wheat can be consumed whole, ground into a flour, made into baked goods such a bread, or used in pasta making.

Spelt Pizza with Grilled Vegetables: Click here

Lamb Skewers with Bulgur Salad: Click here

There are many types of ancient grain available on the market today. These grains are a great way to add extra flavor and nutrition to your diet.  All of these grains can be consumed either as a whole seed or grain or ground into a flour, where they are used to make pastas, breads, and baked goods. Ancient grains are becoming so popular that they are showing up in everyday products such as breakfast cereals and chips. Take care when purchasing these grains, making sure they are in their whole form (hull, bran, and grain), this will ensure you are getting the most nutrition. When buying flour, look for items labeled ‘Whole Spelt Flour’ or ‘Whole Buckwheat Flour.’

  1. Badr, A., K. Muller, R. Schafer-Pregel, H. El Rabey, S. Effgen, H. H. Ibrahim, C. Pozzi, W. Rohde, and F. Salamini. “On the Origin and Domestication History of Barley (Hordeum vulgare).” Molecular Biology and Evolution 17.4 (2000): 499-510. Oxford Journals- Molecular Biology and Evolution. Oxford University Press, 2000. Web.
  2. “Barley - February Grain of the Month.” The Whole Grains Council. Oldways Preservation Trust, n.d. Web.
  3. Cherfas, Jeremy. “Millet: How a Trendy Ancient Grain Turned Nomads into Farmers.” NPR: The Salt. NPR, 23 Dec. 2015. Web.
  4. “Wheat - July Grain of the Month.” The Whole Grains Council. Oldways Preservation Trust, n.d. Web.

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