Humans have been consuming grains since the birth of civilization. Today, corn, rice, and wheat are the mostly widely produced grains in the world, but heirloom or heritage grains are making a comeback due to their better nutrient profiles and unique flavors. By definition, a grain is a member of the grass family which produces a dry, edible, one-seeded fruit called a kernel, grain or berry. Ancient grains are grains that have remained relatively unchanged since their beginnings. Whole grains (which includes most ancient grains) contain all three parts of the grain kernel, including the fiber-packed bran layer, the starchy and protein-rich endosperm, and the germ which contains healthy fats, iron for red blood cell health, and antioxidants. Whole grains are also an excellent source of B vitamins and magnesium, which are needed to help metabolize other nutrients. Ancient grains are a tasty, healthy, and economically friendly addition to the diet.
Check out the following fast facts for these emerging ancient grains:
- Amaranth: Originating in Mexico & South America around 6,000 years ago and serving as staple of Aztec culture, this gluten free grain is the only grain found to contain vitamin C. Amaranth is not actually a true grain since it’s not part of the grass family. Its crunchy texture and peppery flavor is easy to cook and is popular in crackers, breads, and pancakes.
- Ancient Wheat
- Einkorn – Believed to be most ancient variety originating in the Middle East, studies show that einkorn is higher in protein, potassium, and beta-carotene than other types of wheat.
- Emmer/Farro– this wheat variety is one of the earliest ever domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, but was mostly replaced by the beginning of 20th century with modern wheat. Emmer is now making a comeback as a whole grain dish great in salads, soups, and burgers. Farro is the Italian version of emmer and is popular in risotto dishes. Look for pearled or “whole farro” as this is the whole grain form.
- Kamut – An heirloom cereal grain, this buttery-tasting wheat grain is believed to have originated around Egypt and is higher in protein than modern wheat. Kamut flour can be used in place of wheat flour in recipes, or the grain may be boiled for 90 minutes (use 1 cup dry Kamut for 3 cups water).
- Millet – Millet was thought to be a staple grain in Asia around 8,000 B.C. before the more widespread cultivation of rice. Today, India, Africa, and China are the top producers worldwide. In the Chinese language, the symbols for “millet” and “mouth” comprise the word meaning “peace.” In India, millet is used to make roti, a type of flat bread, while it is more commonly eaten as porridge in Africa. Until recently, millet was used mostly as birdseed and a bean bag filler in the U.S., but don’t let this fool you into thinking this grain can’t be cooked. Millet can be made as a side dish with fresh herbs and olive oil, or even popped like corn and enjoyed as a snack.
- Quinoa – Native to the Andes Mountains in South America, this “pseudo-grain” is actually a relative of swiss chard and beets, and was a favorite in Incan culture. This popular gluten free choice is also one of the few plant foods that is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids needed by humans. Quinoa comes in white, red, and black varieties, each with a unique flavor. Be sure to give quinoa a good rinse before cooking in order to remove the bitter-tasting saponins (a natural protective coating).
- Sorghum – Originating in northeastern Africa 8,000 years ago and serving as a staple grain in that region, this gluten free grain has been used mostly for livestock feed in the U.S. With its neutral flavor and chewy texture, this small round grain resembles couscous and can be used in pilafs, soups, and stews, while the flour can be used to make breads and rolls or popped like corn.
- Teff – Native to Ethiopia, this is the world’s smallest grain but packs the most calcium of any grain. One cup of cooked teff contains 10-12% of the recommended daily value for calcium and over 25% for iron, and teff flour makes an excellent whole grain gluten free choice for wraps, crepes, and pancakes.
Article by Natalie Colla, CDE, RDN, LDN. Natalie is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator, and food and health blogger and freelance writer.
Hearty Breakfast Quinoa (recipe by Natalie Colla)
Makes 4 servings (about ¾ cup serving sizes)
1 cup red quinoa, rinse thoroughly*
2 cups water
2 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
1 Tbsp. brown sugar or raw honey
2 tsp. virgin unrefined coconut oil (optional)
½ cup slivered almonds, chopped walnuts or pecans
¾ cup fresh berries
To cook quinoa: bring 2 cups of water to a rolling boil. Add quinoa, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 20-25 minutes or until quinoa has soaked up the water. Fluff with a fork.
Add spices, coconut oil, and brown sugar or honey. Mix while still hot.
Portion into individual serving cups and divide nuts and berries evenly over top. If saving for later, wait to add nuts until ready to eat.
*I like to use red quinoa for this recipe because it has a nuttier, heartier flavor than white quinoa
Curried Sweet Potato & Millet Soup
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 onions, ﬁnely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp minced gingerroot
2 tsp curry powder
1 tsp freshly grated orange zest
2 cups sweet potato purée (see tips, below)
6 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock
¾ cup millet, toasted (see tips, below)
1 cup freshly-squeezed orange juice
¼ cup pure maple syrup
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Toasted walnuts or sliced almonds
Plain yogurt, optional
In a large saucepan or stockpot, heat oil over medium heat for 30 seconds. Add onions, carrots and celery and cook, stirring, until carrots have softened, about 7 minutes.
Add garlic, ginger curry powder and orange zest and cook, stirring, for about one minute. Add sweet potato purée and stock, and stir well.
Bring to a boil. Stir in millet. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until millet is tender and ﬂavors have blended, about 30 minutes.
Add orange juice and maple syrup and heat through. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls and garnish with toasted nuts and a drizzle of yogurt, if using.
To get this quantity of puréed sweet potato, bake, peel, and mash 2 medium sweet potatoes (each about 6 ounces) or use a 14-ounce can of sweet potato purée.
While it’s not necessary to toast millet, toasting does bring out its pleasantly nutty ﬂavor. To toast millet, heat in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it crackles and releases its aroma, about 5 minutes.
Recipe and tips from the Whole Grains Council at www.wholegrainscouncil.org. Find more whole grain recipes on their website. Additional info about heritage grains can be found at https://www.palouseheritage.com/