Before processed grains, meals were made from scratch and people knew what was in their breads, baked goods, cereals and side dishes. Now, white wheat and other processed grains have been linked to obesity and a number of illnesses.
However, ancient wisdom is coming back into fashion. Paleo and Mediterranean diets are reviving traditional forms of eating, and superfoods with deep-rooted histories are being rediscovered.
Along these lines, a growing list of ancient grains and seeds are replacing the processed stuff while adding valuable nutrients to everyday diets.
“These are whole foods with an array of vitamins, minerals and micronutrients, so they're good for your overall health,” explains Kim Lutz, who blogs at Kim's Welcoming Kitchen and has written Ancient Grains (Sterling). “People eat a lot of rice , but you need diversity in the diet, and these add a richer nutrient profile.”
Commonly Used Ancient Grains
Here's a look at eight of the ancient grains making their way into the modern world that are great wheat alternatives. (This list doesn't include quinoa and chia, which have made the mainstream.)
This gluten-free, protein-packed seed—once a staple of the Aztecs and widely used in Mexican and Peruvian cuisines—is what's called a pseudo-grain.
By definition, grains are the seeds of different types of grasses. While amaranth and other pseudo-grains come from other plant origins, they contain similar nutritional profiles and are used in similar ways as grains.
“Amaranth is very nutritious and can grow in drought and high-heat conditions,” Lutz says. Rich in protein and fiber, it's a good source of magnesium, manganese and iron.
“Amaranth has a lively, peppery flavor,” says Kelly Toups, director of nutrition for the Oldways Whole Grains Council. “But since the grains tend to cling together, it works best in polenta or porridge-style recipes, as opposed to pilafs.” She adds that amaranth can also be used as a thickener for stew.
Amaranth works well with squash, corn, sesame, cinnamon, vanilla and chocolate.
Lutz likes amaranth's texture and uses it as the base for stuffed mushrooms and peppers. She also uses the seed meal to give baked goods a nutrition boost.
Don't let the name fool you. This pseudo-grain, used in Asian and Eastern European cuisines, is not even related to wheat, but is rather a gluten-free relative of the rhubarb plant.
High in fiber and protein, buckwheat is a powerful source of magnesium, copper and manganese, and also contains phosphorus, riboflavin and niacin.
Used to make French crepes, Japanese soba noodles and traditional Jewish kasha, the pyramid-shaped grains cook like rice and add a savory, earthy flavor.
“Unlike most grains, buckwheat does not necessarily need to be cooked in water to be edible,” Toups says.
“Toasting raw buckwheat groats over a warm skillet until browned and fragrant, that's become one of my favorite crunchy salad toppings.”
Buckwheat pairs well with dried fruit, dark spices, beets, walnuts and hazelnuts.
Lutz uses buckwheat in vegan chili and tacos. Also try it in casseroles and breakfast porridges, and as a rich flour for pancakes and pastries.
Also known as emmer, this ancient relative to wheat originated in Mesopotamia, and the fine flour it produces made it valuable to the civilizations that flourished along the Mediterranean, Lutz says. However, it became less prevalent because it's more difficult to thresh, or separate the hull from the grain, than wheat.
“It's in the wheat family, so people with celiac cannot eat farro,” Lutz explains. “But it's more easily digestible for those with gluten issues.” Easy to digest means it's also easier to absorb the nutrients; farro is high in protein, fiber, iron, magnesium, zinc and some B vitamins.
Lutz uses farro, which is a little bigger than bulger, as the base for a grain salad like tabbouleh or as a pilaf. “It has a delicate, nutty-flavored, whole-grained heartiness that's kind of like a comfort food,” she notes.
Toups is also a fan. “Farro has a delightfully chewy texture,” she says. “For people who are new to whole grains, it's a great ‘gateway grain' because of the slightly sweet flavor.”
With roots in Middle Eastern and North African cuisines, this grain has been traced back to ancient Egypt.
“Legend has it that freekeh was discovered when an ancient village in the eastern Mediterranean hurriedly picked young wheat before an attack on their city,” Toups says. “Attackers' fires burned the young wheat, but the result was quite delicious.”
Because the freekeh grain is harvested young, like micro-greens and other young plants, it packs more of a nutritional punch. High in protein and fiber, it's a low-carb food that also contains a hearty amount of iron.
With a fluffy, chewy texture, freekeh is perfect for grain salads, sides and pilafs. “Freekeh is made from young, green wheat that has been roasted, so it has a signature smoky flavor unmatched by other grains,” Toups says. “Play up this smokiness by pairing it with other Mediterranean ingredients, like tomatoes, citrus, or fresh herbs.”
Freekeh is a natural for Middle Eastern flavors, such as cinnamon, tomatoes, lemon and pine nuts.
This supergrain, with roots in ancient China, is a staple in India today and also widely used in Russian and various South American and African cuisines.
“I love millet!” Lutz declares. “It's a gluten-free grain that's a little smaller than quinoa.” High in protein and fiber, it's also a rich source of magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, copper and phytonutrients.
Lutz uses millet as a base for tabouli and vegetable stuffings, and to add substance to chili. “You can also make a porridge with it or a millet pudding that's like a rice pudding,” she says.
With its buttery flavor, millet pairs well with mushrooms, herbs, warm spices, scallions and squash.
“Depending on how much liquid you add, millet can be cooked into a creamy porridge, like oatmeal, or a fluffy pilaf-style dish,” Toups says. “It makes a great base for curries and chili, and when cooked sticky, it's almost reminiscent of Thanksgiving stuffing.”
Lutz describes sorghum as a favorite among gluten-free bakers, as it mills into a soft, fluffy and flavorful flour.
With evidence that it was consumed as far back as the Ice Age, sorghum has roots in Africa and is still used there today in porridges, flatbreads and beverages. “It's a common compound of gluten-free flour blends and gluten-free beer,” Lutz says. Along with protein and fiber, this versatile grain contains riboflavin, thiamin, niacin, magnesium, iron, copper, calcium and phosphorous.
Similar in size to farro, sorghum can be used in similar ways. “It has some chew to it,” Lutz says. “You can use it as an alternative filler in tacos, add it in place of barley in a soup, or you can even put a pasta sauce on it.”
“This pearl-shaped grain is a great stand-in for couscous,” Toups adds, “but it also works beautifully in grain salads or pilaf dishes.”
As a flour, sorghum performs well in pancakes, waffles, crepes and cookies, and it can even be popped like popcorn for a nutritious snack.
An ancestor of wheat, spelt contains gluten, but, like farro, it can be easier to digest for those with gluten sensitivities. Once a staple in pre-Medieval Europe, it was overshadowed by the mass production of wheat, and just recently made its way back to modern kitchens.
Spelt's nutritional profile includes high levels of protein, fiber, niacin, thiamin, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc.
Spelt grinds into a light flour with a slightly nutty flavor. “It's so easy to use in baked goods,” Lutz says. “And it's light, so you can bake a loaf of whole grain bread and it doesn't have that heavy, natural-food bread feel.”
Spelt can also be boiled and served like other grains, whether used alone as a side dish, added to soups and stews, or in a grain salad. “Like farro, spelt is a wheat berry that pairs well with almost anything,” Toups adds. “Try it with butternut squash and brussels sprouts for an autumn side dish.”
The tiniest of the ancient grains—about the size of a poppy seed—teff is native to Africa, where it's still a staple today.
Because it's drought-resistant, gluten-free and extremely nutritious, teff has drawn the attention of farmers worldwide. It can be eaten whole, adding a nutritional boost that includes high levels of protein, fiber, iron, magnesium and vitamins C and B6, as well as higher levels of calcium than any other grain.
“People use teff in gluten-free flour, but it's tiny, so it can be used to bread things to give them a crispy crunch,” Lutz says; she likes to bread eggplant slices with it. “When it cooks it has a savory flavor, so it marries well in savory applications, like veggie burgers, sloppy joes and soups,” she adds.
“Like amaranth, teff is well suited for porridge and polenta-style recipes,” Toups notes. “You may also recognize this ingredient from injera, a spongy Ethiopian flatbread.”
Hidden Wheat and Grain Replacements
Wheat is present in a number of foods, including some that may surprise you. Examples include breaded meats and vegetables, cereal, candy, crackers, ice cream, potato chips, processed meats, rice cakes, salad dressings, soups, salads, and meat patties. You may also find wheat as an ingredient in beer and ale.
If you're trying to avoid wheat or other types of grains in your diet, you can use some of the options listed here. Additionally, certain low-carb breads and foods can serve as substitutes, such as Oopsie bread — which is made of cream cheese, eggs, and salt — and bread and pizza crust made with cauliflower. You can also try grain-free alternatives made with squash or sweet potato products.
“In this recipe, sorghum takes an unexpected direction, replacing traditional proteins to create a flavorful taco that has a delightful texture,” says Kim Lutz. “You can substitute millet in place of sorghum, if you prefer, and still have a delicious dish. I like to put out a mini buffet of fresh toppings to accompany these tacos— chopped cilantro, shredded red cabbage and sliced avocado are some favorite options.”
1 tbsp olive oil
3/4 cup diced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, minced
2 tsp tomato paste
1 tsp oregano
1 tomato, cored and diced
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 cups prepared sorghum*
8 tortillas or taco shells
*To prepare sorghum, rinse 1 cup of grain and place in a pot with 3 cups water or vegetable broth. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce to a simmer until tender, about 50–60 minutes. Drain excess liquid.
Source: Reprinted with permission from Ancient Grains © 2016 by Kim Lutz, Sterling Publishing Co. Photography By Bill Milne
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**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.