5 Ancient Grains You Should Give a Try

Compared to today’s overly processed grains, ancient ones like spelt and teff win out when it comes to nutrition.
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Have you noticed the wealth of trendy “new” grains at the market—kaniwa, farro, freekeh, spelt, and teff? Actually, they’ve been around for a long, long time. In fact, these grains are positively ancient.

Only recently discovered by Western palates, kaniwa comes from the Andes in Peru, where it’s been a staple of local diets for generations. Farro was mentioned in the Bible. It’s been found in the tombs of Egyptian kings, is said to have fed the Roman legions, and was even used as a form of currency in ancient Rome. Freekeh was created thousands of years ago in the Fertile Crescent (where the Middle East meets the Mediterranean Sea). Spelt was so important to the Greeks that they gave it as an offering to their gods. And teff has been a staple of traditional Ethiopian cooking for more than 3,000 years.

Why the renewed interest in these ancient foodstuffs? For three simple reasons: ancient grains are claimed to be more nutritious and healthier than modern grains, they haven’t been genetically modified, and many are gluten-free. Plus, studies show that people who consume more whole grains may have a lower risk of many chronic diseases, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. And any one of these ancient grains could become the next “super grain,” kicking quinoa right out of the pot.

1. Farro

A favorite grain of foodies and chefs, farro is high in fiber, iron, and protein.

Farro

A favorite grain of foodies and chefs, farro is high in fiber, iron, and protein. It is hearty and chewy, with a rich, nutty flavor, and it’s easy to digest. This tasty ancient grain delivers about the same number of calories (roughly 100 per half-cup, cooked) as more traditional grains, with about 3.5 more grams of protein and fiber than brown rice per half-cup serving. Farro is also rich in vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, niacin, and zinc.

Some say that farro is the original ancestor of all other wheat. Today, this Old World heirloom is still highly regarded in Italy, where it has been grown for generations by Tuscan farmers and is featured in many traditional dishes. Use it in casseroles, stews, salads, pilafs, tabbouleh, and couscous. Or try your hand at “farrotto,” an alternative to traditional risotto.

Farro was found in the tombs of Egyptian kings and was used as a form of currency in ancient Rome.

2. Kaniwa

Kaniwa (pronounced ka-nyi-wa) is the latest gluten-free super grain, not to be confused with its cousin quinoa.

Kaniwa

Just when you finally learned how to pronounce quinoa (keen-wa), another healthy grain comes along with an odd sounding name. Kaniwa (pronounced ka-nyi-wa) is the latest gluten-free super grain, not to be confused with its cousin quinoa. Technically a seed, it is rich in protein, fiber, iron, calcium, zinc, and antioxidants. In fact, kaniwa is a complete protein, boasting all nine essential amino acids and seven grams of protein per half-cup serving.

Kaniwa is easy to digest and has a similar sweet nutty flavor as quinoa, but is half the size. Kaniwa can be cooked just like quinoa, but it doesn’t need to be rinsed prior to cooking. Try kaniwa in place of oatmeal for breakfast, as a rice replacement, or in soups, soufflés, casseroles, and baked goods. 

3. Freekeh

Freekeh (pronounced free-kah) or farik (Arabic for “to rub”) was created when a crop of young, green grain was set ablaze.

Freekeh

Freekeh (pronounced free-kah) or farik (Arabic for “to rub”) was created when a crop of young, green grain was set ablaze. In a salvage attempt, the farmers rubbed away the burnt chaff to discover the tender roasted kernels inside, and freekeh soon became a Middle Eastern staple. The grain on the inside is too young and moist to burn, so what remains is firm and chewy with an earthy, nutty, and subtle smoky flavor.

When it comes to nutritional benefits, freekeh dominates most grains. It’s low in fat and has more than three times the fiber as brown rice and twice as much as quinoa. This means it keeps you feeling full long after you’ve eaten it. Freekeh also ranks low on the glycemic index, making it a great choice for people managing diabetes or those trying to keep their blood sugar steady. This power-packed grain is high in iron, calcium, and zinc, and it acts as a prebiotic, promoting the growth of good bacteria. Freekeh is wheat, however, so if you’re gluten-free, it’s not for you.

Otherwise, freekeh is easy to incorporate into your diet. It cooks up relatively quickly compared to many whole grains—in just 20 minutes. Use it anywhere you’d use whole grains. Substitute hot freekeh for oatmeal as a hearty hot cereal topped with milk, honey, nuts, or fruit. Add cooked freekeh to salad, soups, pilafs, risottos, and tabbouleh. 

4. Spelt

A distant cousin to wheat, spelt is more nutritious, providing a generous dose of protein, fiber, riboflavin (vitamin B), iron, manganese, and zinc.

Spelt

A distant cousin to wheat, spelt is more nutritious, providing a generous dose of protein, fiber, riboflavin (vitamin B), iron, manganese, and zinc. Spelt has a robust, nutty flavor and chewy texture and can be easier to digest than wheat. Because of its high water solubility, its vital nutrients are quickly absorbed into the body.

Originating in the Near East more than 8,000 years ago, this heirloom grain later spread throughout Europe, becoming especially popular in Germany, where it was farmed throughout the Middle Ages. Spelt has never been hybridized, so it has retained many of its original characteristics from antiquity, including its complex flavor. Breads and pasta made from spelt are denser and slightly sweeter than those made from white flour. Spelt makes excellent pasta, cookies, and other baked goods. However, like freekeh, it isn’t gluten-free.

5. Teff

Teff is a tiny whole grain the size of a poppy seed, with a mild, nutty flavor. It’s the smallest grain in the world (about 1/100th the size of a kernel of wheat).

Teff

Teff is a tiny whole grain the size of a poppy seed, with a mild, nutty flavor. It’s the smallest grain in the world (about 1/100th the size of a kernel of wheat). The germ and bran, where nutrients are concentrated, account for a larger volume of the seed compared to more familiar grains. It’s a good source of fiber, protein, iron, calcium, magnesium, and zinc. It has more calcium and vitamin C than almost any other grain. Much of its fiber is resistant starch, which has been linked in studies to improved blood sugar, and it is gluten-free.

Teff is the most widely planted crop in Ethiopia, where it’s a dietary staple of the country’s legendary distance runners because it’s naturally high in minerals. Mix up your menu with teff. Try it on its own or in stews, veggie burgers, cakes, cookies, and breads. It can be made into polenta, or a hot cereal with coconut oil. 

Teff has more calcium and vitamin C than almost any other grain. 

Gluten or No Gluten? Download our Gluten & Grains Guide at betternutrition.com.

Try our ancient grain recipes:

Wild for Rice

It may not be “new” to you like some of the ancient grains featured in this article, but rice has a storied history all its own, dating back thousands of decades—an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 years.

Castor River Farms

It may not be “new” to you like some of the ancient grains featured in this article, but rice has a storied history all its own, dating back thousands of decades—an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 years. First cultivated in China, rice quickly became a staple in Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, and European cuisines. For so many dishes, there’s just no suitable substitute for rice.

Whether you prefer white or brown rice (the more nutrient-dense of the two, with higher amounts of fiber, minerals, and vitamins than white), not all rice is the same. A handful of farmers are raising the bar when it comes to growing rice. One standout: Castor River Farms in Southeast Missouri, a generations-old farm dedicated to soil conservation. They use cover crops and no-till farming to regenerate the land and reduce carbon emissions. “Utilizing cover crops protects the soil where crops are planted. As a result, specific plants are allowed to grow deep into the soil, promoting soil health and fertility,” says Johnny Hunter II, owner of Castor River Farms. Both their Long Grain White Rice and Long Grain Brown rice have a light, fluffy texture and taste great fried or steamed. —Nicole Brechka

Rice Giveaway: Enter to Win!

Castor River Farms is giving away 5 bags of brown rice to Better Nutrition readers. Be one of the lucky winners—to enter, simply email your name and address to betternutritionfreebie@gmail.com. Put “Rice” in the subject line.

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