What exactly is an ancient grain? "Grains" such as quinoa, amaranth, spelt and kamut are called "ancient" because they've been around, unchanged, for millennia. By contrast, corn, rice and modern varieties of wheat have been bred selectively over thousands of years to look and taste much different from their distant ancestors," said Mian Riaz, director of the Food Protein Research and Development Center at Texas A&M University. Most notably, modern corn bears little resemblance to wild corn (maize) from long ago.
Nutritionally, each grain is a bit different. The ancient grains are actually not all grains either. Grains are technically grasses. By that standard, kamut, spelt and wheat are all grains, but quinoa and amaranth are not. Still, the common term "grain" has stuck for all of them.
Grains are grown and eaten globally and our ancient grain collection has a broad reach as well.
- Amaranth (not a grain, but a fruit of a grass) is native to central and south America and was a staple of the Aztecs. It can be served as a cereal, popped or used as flour. The grain itself is about the size of a poppy seed and is loaded with iron, calcium, protein, fiber and lysine, and is gluten free.
- Buckwheat, a cousin of rhubarb actually, is from southern China. Used in soba noodles, kasha, as a cereal, pancakes (think blini with caviar) or even toasted for crunch, this powerhouse is loaded with amino acids, protein and plant lignans (3rd only to flaxseed) and is gluten free. It is a very dense, strong flavor when used in flour form, but offers a nice nuttiness in grain form.
- Kamut is a type of wheat from ancient Egypt. It's large grain size makes it great for soups, salads or used in baked goods as flour. High in protein, tolerated by those with wheat sensitivities, but not for Celiac’s patients, and full of zinc and magnesium this is a versatile grain to try.
- Quinoa (not a grain, but a fruit of a grass) was eaten by the Incas in Peru. Quinoa can be white, yellow, red or dark brown and is a tiny flat “grain”. Delicious in salads, pilafs, and with cooked veggies. This grain is very high in protein, perfect for “meatless Mondays” and probably the most common entry into the world of grains due to its mild flavor.
- Sorghum, a native of Africa, is gluten free, and is typically used as a flour for baking. Sorghum is has also been used for beer and is not as nutrionally dense as many of the other grains. It is delicious popped though!
- Spelt is also a wheat from Europe, used mostly in baking, though cooked up as a salad is yummy too. A firm textured large grain, it is low in in gluten, but not gluten free. It has 30% more protein than regular wheat.
- Millet is easier to digest than most grains, along with teff, are two of the oldest grains from Ethiopia. Millet, a light colored grain, is typically used as bird food, but is a great source of two critical amino acids lacking in many grains and is very easily digested. Millet is a great source of fiber too. Teff is a very small, red grain that is malty in taste, and is a great source of iron, calcium, magnesium, boron, copper, phosphorous and zinc. It also has twice the iron of wheat and barley. Both grains can be used toasted as hot cereal, used in breads, muffins and pancakes.
- Chia is also considered an ancient grain that we have mocked in Chia pets. The Aztecs, Mayans, and Native Americans knew better using this energy packed seed that is full of fiber to stay energized and healthy. Chia is also a rich source of calcium, protein, and can stand in for eggs in recipes. Chia thickens when exposed to water, and can be use in puddings, or as a wheat flour replacement.
So let life get a little grainy - your body will love you for it!
Whole Foods is a great resource for these grains and offer recipes to try them out. One of my favorites is their Ancient Grain Stuffed Peppers. Enjoy!
Ancient Grain Stuffed Bell Peppers
Impressive yet simple with whole grains and edamame. Feel free to add more herbs or top with toasted sesame seeds.
1/2 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed
1/4 cup uncooked amaranth (or more quinoa)
1 cup frozen edamame, thawed
6 green onions, thinly sliced
3 carrots, grated
1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro, dill or parsley
2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
4 red bell peppers, tops removed and reserved, then cored and seeded
Preheat oven to 350°F. Put grains and 1½ cups water into a medium pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to medium-low; cover and simmer until liquid is gone and grains are tender, about 15 minutes. Let rest 5 minutes; fluff with a fork and transfer to a large bowl. Toss in edamame, onions, carrots, cilantro and vinegar. Stuff peppers with mixture and arrange in a baking dish; pour 1/4 cup water into dish. Place tops on peppers, cover with foil and bake 30 minutes. Uncover and bake until tender, 20 to 30 minutes more.