Let’s check out a group of foods that have been making headlines in recent times for their nutrient content – ancient grains. While there’s no official definition of what makes a grain “ancient”, The Wholegrains Council defines ancient grains ‘loosely as grains that are largely unchanged over the last several hundred years’.
Are ancient grains essential for everyone? Nope, not at all. More ‘everyday’ grains such as wheat, rice and oats can still tick many of your nutrition goals. However, for those looking for a higher protein grain or gluten free carb-rich grain options then ancient grains can be useful. Plus sometimes it’s just fun to experiment with new things - who knows, soon you might prefer quinoa bircher to porridge! So, let’s take a quick look at five common ancient grains and how they might fit into your nutrition goals.
Technically a seed (or a pseudo-grain), Amaranth originates in South America and is a unique grain in that it contains the essential amino acid Lysine - a rare find in most grains. Like the majority of ancient grains it’s high in protein but with the added bonus that one cup of cooked amaranth contains ~10% of your daily calcium needs and ~50% of your daily iron needs making it a great option for vegetarians or those who limit red meat and dairy foods in their diet.
Nutrition tips: Cook in a saucepan of water or stock and use in place of rice. Alternatively, use it as a substitute for oats in your morning porridge.
Millet actually refers to a group of several small grains – the most widely grown millet crop is pearl millet. It’s traditionally a staple food in India but is eaten throughout the world. It’s has a carbohydrate and protein profile similar to pasta but is gluten free.
Nutrition tips: Millet can be eaten sweet or savoury. Use it similar to rice to stuff vegetables like capsicum, or cook like polenta and create millet chips for a tasty side dish.
Originating in Ancient Egypt and popular in Europe during Medieval times, spelt is an ancient species of wheat meaning that it is not gluten free but can be tolerated by some people with wheat sensitivities. It has a nutty flavour and is higher in protein than regular wheat flour.
Nutrition tips: Spelt flour can be used to make muffins, pancakes, and bread or the wholegrain can be boiled and used in salads.
One of the smallest grains in the world (smaller than a poppy seed), teff is a staple grain in Ethiopia where they used it to make a flatbread known as injera. Being a gluten free grain it’s suitable for those who need to avoid gluten. It’s also rich in calcium and iron (having similar levels of both these micronutrients to amaranth).
Nutrition tips: Teff can be used similar to other seeds and added to salads or baking for extra crunch. It can also be added to your morning recovery smoothie to boost the nutritional profile.
Probably the most familiar of the ancient grains, quinoa has quickly grown in popularity over recent years due to it’s high protein content and lack of gluten making it an ideal grain substitute for people with coeliac disease. Technically a seed not a grain, quinoa is the only ancient grain that is considered to be a complete protein – meaning that it contains all nine essential amino acids (other than soy, this usually only occurs in animal products).
Nutrition tips: Recipe options for quinoa are endless but it makes a great addition to salads where you would usually use couscous or rice. It can also be cooked in coconut milk or almond milk for a breakfast bircher with a difference.
Here’s a quick summary of how ancient grains stack up against traditional grains:
Per 1 cup cooked
Less Ancient Grains
- Contribution by Ali Patterson, Australian Sports Dietician -