You’ve probably heard of quinoa and chia seeds - maybe even sorghum or spelt. But what about amaranth, freekeh, and teff? These are just a few of the many foods that qualify as ancient grains. Grains like these are nutrient-rich, and they offer a whole host of health benefits ranging from improving digestion to boosting immunity. Keep reading to learn more about these grains and their benefits.
What Are They?
There is no official definition for what ancient grains are and, in fact, most whole grains can be called “ancient” because they’ve been around since the dawn of time. According to the Whole Grains Council, however, they are loosely defined as grains that have remained largely unchanged over the past few centuries. Modern wheat, therefore, would not fall under this category, but certain varieties like einkorn, farro, Kamut®, and spelt would.
Many of the grains that fall into this category are uncommon in the Western world, but are commonly used elsewhere. Examples include sorghum, teff, millet, and amaranth. Others like quinoa, chia seed, buckwheat and wild rice have started to gain popularity in North America, often given the “superfood” designation. In addition to being largely unchanged over the years, this group of grains is known for having rich nutrient profiles and myriad health benefits.
The Health Benefits of Seven Ancient Grains
The health benefits associated with ancient grains are unique to each variety. As grains, however, you can expect all of them to contain a decent amount of dietary fiber as well as some plant protein. Here are some of the nutritional and health benefits associated with seven ancient grains:
A gluten free grain, amaranth is rich in fiber, calcium, iron, and potassium - and, with nine grams per cup, it is packed with protein. Amaranth can be prepared like oatmeal, to coat chicken or fish, or tossed with veggies for a fresh salad. In its flour form, it can be used to make gluten free breads and pizza dough.
This grain looks like tiny yellow pellets of birdseed and, due to its high magnesium content, it is known for providing numerous heart-healthy benefits. In addition to lowering blood pressure, magnesium helps to improve blood vessel function and supports normal heart contractions. Millet can be steamed like rice, tossed in a salad, or cooked into a creamy couscous.
A variety of whole grain wheat, kamut contains about 250 calories per cup with 7 grams of fiber and 11 grams of protein. Compared to modern wheat, it is much richer in polyphenols and fatty acids as well as minerals like selenium, which support a healthy immune system. Kamut also offers antioxidant benefits, helping to reduce gut inflammation and reducing pain associated with IBS.
The name sorghum technically applies to an entire genus of grasses native to the subtropical and tropical regions of the world, though only one variety is harvested for human consumption. One serving of sorghum contains nearly half your daily recommended intake of dietary fiber, making it one of the most powerful grains for digestive health. It also helps regulate blood sugar and increases circulation.
This grain consists of tiny bulbs about the size and shape of poppy seeds, but each one is packed with high levels of iron, calcium, and dietary fiber. Teff can be cooked into a polenta or ground into flour to make gluten free breads and baked goods. The fiber and nutrient content of this grain supports healthy circulation, and may provide weight loss benefits as well.
A form of wheat, farro is a staple in Mediterranean diets. This grain is rich in protein – it is also higher in dietary fiber than quinoa and brown rice, while being lower in calories. It has a dense, chewy texture that works well in rice dishes like risotto. It is also rich in B vitamins, which are important for your brain and metabolic health.
Another form of wheat known for its chewy texture and nutty flavor, freekeh is an excellent source of protein and is rich in minerals like iron, calcium, and zinc. This grain helps ease digestive complaints like constipation and diarrhea, and it may support weight loss by helping you feel full for longer. It also offers antioxidant benefits for eye health.
Check out this ancient grains infographic to learn more about their health benefits.