A Guide to Ancient Grains
by Yalla Mediterranean
October 18, 2017

A big part of meal plans such as Keto, Paleo and Whole30 is eliminating grains from your diet altogether. This can be healthy and provide a number of benefits, but there is another way to go if you don’t want to completely get rid of grains — ancient grains.

Ancient grains are generally defined as those that have remained largely unchanged by the process of selective breeding over thousands of years, in the way grains such as wheat, rice and corn have. Here we will look at how traditional grains come up short, why ancient grains are healthier options, and how you can incorporate them into your diet.

How Traditional Grains Fall Short

Traditional modern grains such as wheat, rice and corn have their health benefits, but at some point in time, they’ve also gone through genetic modification or hybridization. This happened to help produce higher yields at lower costs. Wheat is even bleached and processed in other ways before it makes its way into everyday products such as bread.

Whole grains are made up of three main parts — bran, endosperm and germ. Processing the grains eliminates the germ and bran, which causes the grain to lose fiber and nutrients.

The intolerance of gluten has been a rising concern in recent years, and those with celiac disease tend to feel it through symptoms including headaches, stomach pain, general fatigue and bloating. These and other symptoms impact others with wheat sensitivity as well, even if they aren’t celiac patients.

It can be tough to define why modern wheat can make people sick, but the evidence points to changes in the way it has been grown and processed since industrialization took over.

ancient grains vs gluten free

Why Ancient Grains Are Healthy

Unlike modern grains, ancient grains haven’t been subject to genetic alteration. That means they’re essentially the same as they were thousands of years ago.

Ancient grains tend to offer many benefits, including increased levels of fiber, protein and vitamins versus modern grains. There is a bit of a trade-off, however. Ancient grains are sometimes higher in calories than modern grains, making a “less is more” approach necessary. Since they’re typically packed with many more nutrients, not as many ancient grains are needed to reap the health benefits.

Types of Ancient Grains – Ancient Grain List

Now that you have some background information on what ancient grains are and how they compare to traditional modern grains, you’re likely asking yourself, “So what are the ancient grains?” Here is a list of ancient grains, a breakdown of their health benefits, and easy ways for you to incorporate them into your diet immediately.

  1. Quinoa

Quinoa is often identified as a grain, though it’s officially a seed that traces its roots back thousands of years to the Andes Mountains in South America. It comes in a wide variety of colors, and you can easily store it for months in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

Health Benefits

Quinoa is gluten free, and one cup contains eight grams of protein. It has strong amounts of other key nutrients as well, including 15 percent of the daily recommended amount of iron and more than 10 percent each of Vitamins B-1, B-2 and B-6. Finally, quinoa also contains significant amounts of dietary fiber, zinc, potassium, folate and magnesium.

Incorporating It Into Your Diet

Quinoa cooks similarly to rice, generally requiring two parts liquid to one part quinoa. For some extra flavor, you can replace the water with chicken or vegetable broth. It’s a great side dish with a piece of meat or fish, and you can also use it in salads.

  1. Buckwheat

Buckwheat is an Asian plant that produces seeds similar to grains. It’s known as a very versatile ancient grain. Despite the word “wheat” in its name, it doesn’t actually contain wheat or everyone’s least-favorite wheat substance, gluten.

Health Benefits

Buckwheat offers a solid protein source, with six grams per cup. That same cup also contains just one gram of fat, along with five grams of dietary fiber. Its properties help improve heart health due to its promotion of lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels. It also has many antioxidants and can help prevent diabetes.

Incorporating It Into Your Diet

Many people use buckwheat flour for preparing gluten-free baked goods. It’s also a good option in garden salads and can be used to make homemade soba noodles. Buckwheat also works well as a granola replacement or addition, and can be used in breakfast parfaits.

benefits of buckwheat

  1. Millet

Like a number of options on this list, millet is an ancient seed originating from dry regions of African and northern China. Millet has many different colors and varieties, although the most common is yellow. It’s also used as birdseed, although that version contains an outer hull humans cannot digest.

Health Benefits

Millet is one ancient grain that’s high in calories but also packed with nutrients. A cup of it contains 756 calories, but you don’t need to consume that much to benefit from its nutritional properties. A cup also contains an impressive 22 grams of protein, as well as 17 grams of dietary fiber and large amounts of iron, Vitamin B-6 and magnesium.

Incorporating It Into Your Diet

Millet is another ancient grain that makes a good flour source, particularly for flatbreads. It can also be used like rice as a grain portion of your lunch or dinner, and some even use it as a base for breakfast porridge. When that porridge is very thick, it can end up with a polenta-like texture, which you can then bake, cut and eat as millet fries.

  1. Sorghum

Sorghum is a grass plant most common in Australia, although it’s found in parts of Africa and Asia as well. Many use it as a grain, but it is also often used to create a molasses-like syrup substance, as well as alcoholic beverages. Many parts of the world use sorghum as animal feed.

Health Benefits

When asking yourself what ancient grains are high in protein, look no further than sorghum. One cup has 22 grams of protein, as well as an impressive 12 grams of dietary fiber. As for other nutrients, it has high amounts of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, iron, phosphorus and potassium.

Incorporating It Into Your Diet

Sorghum is like many other grains on this list in that it can be used similarly to rice, cooked with either water or broth. It’s a good source for a quick lunch or dinner — you can make a large amount, freeze it and reheat later. You may use sorghum as the base of gluten-free all-purpose flour, and you can pop it for a snack similar to popcorn.

health benefits of sorghum

  1. Bulgur

Bulgur is a type of cracked, dried wheat known most for its appearance in Indian and Middle Eastern food, as well as some European dishes. Unlike traditional refined wheat we’re most familiar with, bulgur contains both bran and germ. While bulgur is much more wholesome than the wheat that has become common in the U.S., it does still contain gluten and should be avoided by those with celiac disease or any other known sensitivities to gluten.

Health Benefits

Bulgur is another strong source of dietary fiber on this list, with 8 grams per cup when cooked. It also contains six grams of protein, along with high amounts of iron, magnesium and Vitamin B-6. While a cup of cooked bulgur contains just 151 calories, it’s very filling and can help suppress your appetite if you’re trying to lose weight. Further, bulgur improves the efficiency of your digestive system while also slowing down the absorption of sugar, which can help stave off diabetes.

Incorporating It Into Your Diet

Most people know bulgur as one of the main ingredients of tabbouleh, a great dish either on its own or as a side. Bulgur does not take long to cook — you only need to let it sit for about 15 minutes when combined with boiling water. Like many other entries on this list, it makes a nice addition to salads. You can also use it as a base for breakfast porridge.

  1. Farro

Farro is another kind of wheat, and for those with sensitivities to gluten, you know what that means — it, unfortunately, contains gluten. The grain has gained popularity in recent years, but it could be argued it peaked in the days of the Roman Empire, when almost everyone ate it on a regular basis. Back then, many people used it to make a dish similar to polenta.

Health Benefits

Farro provides a slew of nutritional benefits. A quarter cup contains 200 calories, along with seven grams each of dietary fiber and protein. It also contains a decent amount of iron, about 10 percent of the recommended daily amount. Further, it has significant amounts of other nutrients such as niacin, magnesium, zinc and thiamin.

Incorporating It Into Your Diet

You can use farro to make semolina flour, a base ingredient for delicious homemade pasta. It also serves as a welcome ingredient for many kinds of soups on cold autumn or winter nights. Crave something lighter? A refreshing farro salad is easy to make. Simply simmer a cup of it for 20 to 30 minutes, then combine with diced tomatoes, red onion, feta cheese, parsley, a bit of salt and pepper, and a dash of both olive oil and lemon juice.

health benefits of spelt

  1. Spelt

Spelt is a type of the aforementioned farro, and in fact is sometimes called “farro grande.” It has been around for many years, of course, though it came to the U.S. in the late 1800s. In the Middle Ages, spelt was thought to be an ingredient that could help cure illnesses. These days it’s largely grown in Switzerland and Germany.

Health Benefits

A cup of cooked spelt contains a relatively modest 246 calories with good amounts of protein, 10.6 grams, and dietary fiber, 7.6 grams. It is also very high in some of the other nutrients commonly found in these ancient grains. It has at least 18 percent of the daily recommended amount of iron, zinc, Vitamin B-3, magnesium and phosphorous, as well as a whopping 106 percent of the recommended amount of manganese.

Incorporating It Into Your Diet

Cooking one cup of spelt calls for roughly one and a half cups of water, and it helps to soak the spelt berries overnight. Once completed, it serves as a unique and hearty replacement for rice, which is to say it could be useful — not to mention tasty — in any dish that calls for rice.

  1. Kamut

Kamut is the common brand name for this ancient grain, officially known as oriental wheat or khorasan wheat. Kernels of the grain were once found in Egyptian tombs, and it first made it to the U.S. thanks to an airmail package sent from an American soldier.

Health Benefits

Kamut is a rare ancient grain in that it doesn’t contain dietary fiber, but a cup of cooked kamut does contain 11 grams of protein to go along with its 250 calories. It contains roughly a quarter of the daily recommended amount of niacin, along with a good amount of thiamin.

Incorporating It Into Your Diet

Kamut is a good candidate to replace oats in your morning breakfast. Kernels can also be added to soups or salads, used as part of a stir-fry dish, or employed in either hot or cold pasta dishes.

  1. Teff

Teff is one of the oldest grains on this list. In fact, it’s considered one of the earliest domesticated plants and was used in Ethiopia as early as 8000 to 5000 BC. It’s best known for being able to grow in a wide variety of regions and climates, from sea level to high in the mountains and both humid and arid conditions.

Health Benefits

Good news for our gluten-free friends — teff has no gluten, so you can easily include this in your diet without worrying. Teff may be as ancient as any grain on this list, but it has not lost its health properties over the years. A cup of cooked teff has 255 calories and 10 grams of protein, as well as 7 grams of dietary fiber. It’s also high in magnesium, iron, copper, zinc and potassium.

Incorporating It Into Your Diet

Teff can be used as a gluten-free ingredient in veggie burgers or as the base of a hearty polenta. It can also serve as a key component of a sweet porridge for either breakfast or dessert, or used for flour in gluten-free bread.

health benefits of teff

  1. Freekeh

Freekeh dates back to ancient Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Syria, with folks in those regions eating it as early as 2300 BC. It’s now commonly grown and harvested in other parts of the world, namely Australia.

Health Benefits

There are 150 calories in 42 grams of freekeh, which is lower than the amount in farro, brown rice and quinoa. It also has more dietary fiber than those other grains, with six grams, along with a solid six grams of protein.

Incorporating It Into Your Diet

Freekeh is another ancient grain that serves as an excellent rice replacement, and it actually resembles rice somewhat. Use it in place of rice for Asian dishes such as stir fry, or you could even season it with Mexican herbs and spices. It can also be used similarly to steel cut oats, great for a filling breakfast that will jumpstart your day.

Get These Ancient Grains Into Your Modern Diet

Sometimes what’s old is new again, and that is indeed the case for ancient grains. Though they’ve been in existence for thousands of years, they remain some of the healthiest and most nutrient-dense foods around, and there are even options for those who need to avoid gluten.

If you tend to eat a lot of white or brown rice, try replacing it with just about any of these grains, and your health will stand to benefit. And if you want to sample delicious ancient grains on the go, stop into Yalla Mediterranean, where we serve healthy food fast. We recommend the Tabouli made from bulgur wheat to start.