The truth about whole grains 7/12
(This article is adapted from the July 2012 Consumer Reports on Health newsletter.)
Quiz: What are amaranth, emmer, and teff? No, they’re not celebrity baby names. Along with millet, quinoa, and rye, they’re part of a class of food commonly referred to as "ancient grains." Although they represent some of the oldest plants consumed by humans, for many Americans they’re a new and healthier way to eat.
Ancient grains offer health benefits
While many are true cereal grains, several—such as amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa—actually originate from broadleaf plants. But they offer the same health benefits, such as helping to prevent cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure. And when eaten as a whole grain, most are high in fiber.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines, at least half of all grains eaten each day should be "whole"—that means the intact, ground, cracked, or flaked grain. Most of us limit our grains to barley, corn, oats, rice, and wheat, but you can add variety to your diet by including some ancient grains. And it could make it easier to eat the recommended 3 ounces of whole grains daily. Additionally, several varieties are sources of high-quality protein.
Eight widely available ancient grains
Below are listed eight of the more widely available ancient grains, often sold in health-food stores, online, and sometimes at your local grocery store. Most can be found in whole-grain form. (Find tips on eating whole grains here.)
One of the earliest known food plants, it was cultivated by the Aztecs and the Incas (one of the best-known varieties is called Inca wheat). High in protein and a range of nutrients, including calcium, folic acid, magnesium, and potassium, it’s as simple to make as rice. Traditionally eaten as a breakfast porridge, it can also be cooked and added to salads, pancake batter, and soups, or eaten as a side dish.
Despite its name, it’s not a type of wheat, but provides lots of protein as well as calcium, iron, manganese, potassium, and zinc. Native to Southeast Asia, buckwheat is common in Eastern Europe and Asia. The flour is used to make various foods, including pancakes and soba noodles. The grains, or groats, can be tricky to cook, so follow directions carefully. Cooked groats are a great addition to side dishes and salads.
Farro (or emmer)
One of the first crops domesticated in the ancient Near East, whole kernels and flour are full of fiber, iron, magnesium, niacin, and zinc. It can be served in salads, side dishes, and baked goods.
One of the earliest cultivated crops, it is a staple in Africa, China, and India. High in magnesium, whole cooked millet can be served as a side dish or added to soups. When popped it can be eaten as a snack. Millet flour can be used in baking.
Grown in the Andean region of South America, this ancient seed was named the "mother of all grains" by the Incas. It provides high levels of complete protein and is rich in iron, phosphorus, and potassium. Quinoa may require a thorough rinse before cooking to wash off its naturally bitter coating (called saponin). It cooks in about 15 minutes and can be served as a side dish or added to soups and salads.
Don’t expect this grain to taste like rye bread, which often takes on the distinct flavor of the added caraway seeds. While rye flour is used to make breads and crackers, rye grains can be served hot as a side dish or added to soups and salads. Soaking overnight shortens the cooking time. Rye is high in nutrients, including folic acid, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, and zinc.
Widely popular in Africa, it’s high in fiber, niacin, and phosphorus. In India it is used to make chapatis (a type of flatbread). In the U.S., it’s most often ground into flour and used in baked goods.
Teff (or tef)
One of the tiniest grains, with seeds smaller than a pinhead, it’s high in calcium and vitamin C. In Ethiopia teff is ground into flour and made into a soft, spongy bread called injera. Teff can also be found in cereals and can be sprinkled on salads or added to soup.
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