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Nutritional overview of ancient grains: Unlocking their health secrets

Are ancient grains really better for us? We look at what nutritionists and experts tell us about ancient grains and see if all the hassle is really worth it to get better quality food for our families.

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Ancient grains have been a staple in human diets for thousands of years. These nutrient-dense grains, such as amaranth, freekeh, and millet, offer a remarkable array of health benefits and have recently come back into the spotlight as people search for healthier, more sustainable food options. Due to their rich nutritional profiles and versatility in various recipes, these grains have started to regain popularity among health-conscious individuals.

The nutritional advantages of ancient grains are vast. They are typically high in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Additionally, many of these grains are gluten-free, making them a fantastic option for those with gluten intolerance or looking to diversify their diet. Incorporating ancient grains into one’s meals not only provides essential nutrients to support overall well-being but also encourages a more sustainable and environmentally friendly lifestyle due to their resilience in diverse climates.

As you explore the world of ancient grains, you’ll discover their remarkable health benefits and delicious flavors. This nutritional powerhouse is certainly worth incorporating into your daily diet, and their unique characteristics and textures will surely add a delightful twist to your favorite recipes. So, why not give these ancient grains a try and nourish your body with their wholesome goodness?

What are ancient grains?

Ancient grains are a group of grains and pseudocereals (seeds that are consumed like grains) that have remained mostly unchanged for thousands of years. They differ from modern wheat varieties that have been selectively bred and modified over time. Ancient grains provide a rich source of nutrients, including protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making them a valuable addition to a healthy diet.

Some popular ancient grains include quinoa, amaranth, millet, teff, and khorasan wheat (also known as Kamut). These grains are often available as whole grains, meaning that their entire kernel (including the bran, germ, and endosperm) is preserved, ensuring maximum nutritional benefit. Many ancient grains, such as quinoa, amaranth, and teff, are also naturally gluten-free, making them suitable for those with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease.

Notable ancient grains also include varieties of rice, such as black and red rice, which offer unique flavors and higher levels of nutrients compared to more common white rice. Buckwheat, despite its name, is not a true grain but rather a seed related to rhubarb. It’s high in protein and fiber and can be used in a variety of dishes, from porridge to pancakes. Similarly, chia, an ancient Aztec seed, is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids and can be easily incorporated into smoothies, oatmeal, or used as a thickening agent in recipes.

Other ancient grains, such as rye, barley, spelt, and sorghum, are also nutritionally dense. Rye, for example, is high in fiber and has been shown to support healthy digestion. Barley, with its chewy texture, contains a special type of fiber called beta-glucan that helps lower cholesterol levels. Spelt, a cousin of modern wheat, offers similar benefits; it’s high in fiber and nutrients but has a lower gluten content than modern wheat, making it potentially easier to digest for some individuals.

Incorporating ancient grains into your meals is a great way to add variety and reap the health benefits these ancient grains offer. They can be cooked and used in place of rice, pasta, or other grains, or even ground into flour for baking. Many ancient grains can also be enjoyed as popular dishes, such as quinoa salads, risottos with pearl barley, or warm, comforting bowls of steel-cut oats.

By including ancient grains in your diet, you’ll not only be introducing new flavors and textures to your meals but also supporting a more balanced and nutritious eating plan.

Nutritional profile

Ancient grains have been consumed for thousands of years and are praised for their numerous health benefits. These whole grains offer an impressive array of nutrients that contribute to overall health and well-being.


Ancient grains are a great source of macronutrients, including carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. They provide a good amount of dietary fiber, which is crucial for digestive health and has been associated with reducing the risk of chronic diseases. Some ancient grains, such as amaranth and teff, are also gluten-free, making them suitable for individuals with gluten intolerance or celiac disease.

  • Carbohydrates: Ancient grains are rich in complex carbohydrates that provide energy and support various bodily functions.
  • Proteins: Many ancient grains contain all nine essential amino acids, making them a complete protein source. This is especially important for vegetarians and vegans who may struggle to find plant-based protein sources.
  • Fats: While ancient grains contain minimal amounts of fat, the fats they do provide are usually heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats.

Vitamins and minerals

Ancient grains are packed with essential vitamins and minerals that play vital roles in maintaining optimal health. They are particularly rich in B vitamins, which support energy production and healthy brain function. Some of the key vitamins and minerals found in ancient grains include:

  • Zinc: An essential mineral that supports immune function, wound healing, and DNA synthesis.
  • Iron: Necessary for the production of red blood cells and prevention of anemia.
  • Magnesium: Contributes to muscle and nerve function, and supports healthy bones and teeth.
  • Copper: A trace element involved in iron metabolism and the synthesis of collagen and elastin.
  • Phosphorus: An essential component for building strong bones and teeth.
  • Folate: Crucial for DNA synthesis and cell division, especially important during pregnancy and infancy.
  • Manganese: Involved in the production of enzymes necessary for metabolism and antioxidant function.
  • Selenium: An antioxidant that supports thyroid function and may help protect against certain cancers.
  • Niacin (Vitamin B3): Supports the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats, as well as maintaining healthy skin and nerve function.
  • Vitamin C: A potent antioxidant that supports immune function and collagen production.

In addition to vitamins and minerals, ancient grains are a rich source of health-promoting phytochemicals, such as carotenoids and beta-glucans, which offer antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Incorporating nutrient-dense ancient grains into a balanced diet can contribute to better overall health and well-being.

Health Benefits

Healthy digestion

Ancient grains are known for their positive impact on digestion, thanks to their high fiber content. Consuming fiber-rich foods helps regulate bowel movements and may even reduce the risk of developing digestive disorders. For example, amaranth is naturally gluten-free and full of protein, which makes it an excellent choice for those with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease. Additionally, the fiber in ancient grains may help prevent constipation and promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria.

Blood sugar control

Incorporating ancient grains into one’s diet can also lead to better blood sugar control, which is especially important for individuals with diabetes or at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The fiber present in these grains works to slow down the absorption of food, reducing blood sugar and insulin spikes after a meal. As a result, ancient grains have a lower glycemic load when consumed in their whole form, making them an excellent choice for maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.

Heart health

Another notable health benefit of ancient grains is their potential to improve heart health. These nutrient-dense foods contain essential micronutrients such as iron, magnesium, and zinc, as well as antioxidants that help remove free radicals associated with chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer. Consuming ancient grains in moderation may also increase good cholesterol levels while lowering bad cholesterol and triglycerides, which are types of fat found in the blood. This ultimately contributes to better overall heart health, and may even help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Popular Ancient Grains and Their Uses


Quinoa is a versatile and gluten-free pseudo-grain originally from South America. It’s high in protein, fiber, and minerals and can be used in salads, side dishes, and even breakfast cereals. Due to its adaptability, quinoa is now grown in various regions, including the Mediterranean, Africa, and India.


Amaranth is a highly nutritious, gluten-free grain cultivated for over 8,000 years. It’s an excellent source of protein, fiber, and minerals. Amaranth can be enjoyed in porridges, baked goods, or as a side dish.


Millet is a diverse group of ancient grains commonly grown in Africa and Asia. Rich in nutrients and easy to grow, millet is used in traditional recipes like flatbreads, porridges, and stews.


Buckwheat is native to Europe and Asia. It’s gluten-free and rich in essential nutrients such as magnesium and fiber. Often used as a substitute for wheat, buckwheat can be found in pancakes, noodles, and porridge.


Teff is an ancient grain native to North Africa, primarily Ethiopia. It is gluten-free, high in calcium, and a good source of fiber and protein. Teff is often used in traditional Ethiopian dishes like injera (a sourdough-like flatbread).


Sorghum is an ancient grain grown in Africa, India, and other parts of the world. It’s drought-resistant and versatile, making it an important crop for many cultures. Sorghum can be ground into flour for baking or cooked as a whole grain in side dishes.


Einkorn is an ancient wheat variety that originated in the Middle East. Its low gluten content and high nutritional value make it a popular choice for breads, pastas, and other baked goods.


Emmer, also known as farro, is a type of hulled wheat native to the Mediterranean region. It has a nutty flavor and a chewy texture, making it great for salads, soups, and pilafs.


Kamut is an ancient Egyptian wheat variety that is larger than modern wheat. Rich in nutrients and minerals, Kamut is used in bread, pasta, and other products.


Spelt is an ancient wheat variety that originated in the Middle East and Europe. It has a nutty flavor and is highly nutritious. Spelt can be found in breads, pastas, and cereals.


Farro is a general term that refers to three different types of ancient wheat: Einkorn, Emmer, and Spelt. It’s popular in Mediterranean cuisines and is often used in salads, soups, and side dishes.


Bulgur is a form of partially cooked, cracked wheat that originated in the Middle East. High in fiber and easily digestible, it’s commonly used in dishes like tabbouleh and other grain salads.

Incorporating ancient grains into your diet

In baking

Ancient grains like einkorn, emmer, and durum wheat are rich in nutrients such as manganese, selenium, niacin, and zinc, making them a great choice for baking. You can easily replace refined grain flours with ancient grain flours in your favorite recipes for bread, pancakes, and pasta to reap their nutritional benefits.

For a nutty flavor, try adding pseudocereal flours such as amaranth or quinoa to your baking recipes. They’re gluten-free and a good option for individuals who have food allergies. But remember: when incorporating ancient grains into your baking, balance is important. Mixing ancient grain flours with more familiar ones like whole wheat or brown rice flour can help ease your taste buds into their unique flavor profiles.

In cooking

Most ancient grains can be used in various cooking methods, making them a versatile addition to your diet. For example, freekeh, a type of ancient wheat, works well in pilafs or couscous dishes. Cooked ancient grains like cracked wheat, fonio, or even wild rice can be added to soups, salads, and breakfast bowls for extra fiber and nutrients.

Additionally, some ancient grains like rame are pseudocereals that have a similar texture to porridge when cooked. These grains can be used to create a warm, comforting breakfast bowl, or you can turn them into a creamy side dish to accompany your main course.

You can also incorporate the bran or germ of ancient grains into your cooking. These nutritious parts of the grain are often discarded in processing but can be used to boost the nutrient content in dishes like porridge or pilafs. Experimenting with these ingredients in your cooking can lead to the discovery of exciting new textures and flavors.

Remember that the taste of ancient grains may vary, so start by adding a small amount to familiar dishes to see how you enjoy their unique characteristics. Go ahead and explore the world of ancient grains — you may just find a new favorite staple for your cooking and baking repertoire.


Ancient grains, unlike modern grains, have not undergone significant changes through selective breeding. They are cultivated plants that have retained their original nutritional profiles and characteristics. These unique grains are receiving increasing attention for their potential health benefits and nutritional value.

Incorporating ancient grains into one’s diet can provide essential nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Furthermore, these grains tend to contain less processing compared to their modern counterparts, thus preserving more of their inherent nutritional qualities.

It is crucial to note that although ancient grains may be a healthier option, it is essential to maintain a balanced diet. Consumers should also be mindful of potential allergens or intolerances when trying new grains.

In conclusion, ancient grains serve as a valuable addition to a healthy and diverse diet. Their cultivation practices and minimal processing help preserve their original nutritional properties, making them an attractive option for those seeking health-conscious food choices. Embracing these grains can contribute to improved overall nutrition and support a more sustainable agricultural future.

Frequently asked questions

What are the health benefits of amaranth, farro, and other ancient grains?

Amaranth is a nutritious, gluten-free grain packed with calories and carbs. Farro, an ancient variety of wheat, has a rich nutrient profile including fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Ancient grains typically provide higher protein, fiber, and vitamin content than modern grains, contributing to their nutritional benefits.

How do ancient grains compare to modern grains in terms of nutrition?

Ancient grains generally offer richer nutritional value compared to modern grains. They are known to have more protein, fiber, and vitamins that support overall health. NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center’s clinical nutritionist explains that ancient grains contain a higher nutritional punch.

Which ancient grain provides the highest amount of protein?

Among ancient grains, quinoa stands out for being a complete plant-based protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids. It is a versatile and nutritious option for vegetarians and vegans looking for a high-quality protein source.

Are there any gluten-free options among ancient grains?

Yes, several ancient grains are gluten-free, making them suitable for those with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease. Gluten-free ancient grains include amaranth, quinoa, millet, teff, and sorghum.

How can ancient grains be incorporated into everyday meals?

Ancient grains can easily be added to meals by replacing or mixing with modern grains like rice or pasta. You can use them in salads, soups, stews, or as breakfast porridges. For baking, ancient grains can be ground into flour and used to add variety and nutrition to your favorite recipes.

What is the fiber content of commonly consumed ancient grains like spelt and teff?

Spelt and teff are excellent sources of dietary fiber. Teff is particularly rich in minerals like calcium and has a high fiber content. The exact amount of fiber varies by grain and serving size, so it’s beneficial to research the specific grain you’re interested in to learn more about its fiber content.