Ancient grains can be traced back thousands of years and have remained mostly unchanged in that time. They include wheat relatives, such as einkorn, farro and freekeh, and gluten-free grains like quinoa.
Ancient grains are mainly eaten in less industrialized countries, so they tend to be less processed and eaten in their whole grain form. Today’s modern grains have evolved to be more convenient for growing and processing, but most are fundamentally and biologically different than their ancient counterparts. With the advent of industrialized food production, certain grains were chosen for specific traits, such as grain size and ease of processing and yield – or how much the plant produces. The grains were then altered to enhance those traits, allowing us to produce more food. The results are the modern wheat, corn, rice and oats we find in many of the processed foods we eat.
Are ancient grains more nutritious?
The form of grain you eat matters most when it comes to nutrition. Whole grains contain more beneficial nutrients than refined grains. But when it comes down to variety, each type of grain can differ slightly in nutrition and flavor. Consider opting for a variety of whole grains in their simplest form to get the most benefits.
Modern wheat grains may can contain fewer beneficial nutrients depending on how they are produced and used as an ingredient. Today, the wheat in most products is lower in zinc, iron and magnesium(1) and further processing, like refining and bleaching, can remove vitamins, fiber, protein and iron.(2)
Ancient wheats like einkorn and farro – sometimes called emmer – have more protein, fiber and iron than modern wheat and tend to be found in their whole grain form.(3) And although ancient grains aren’t fortified like modern wheat products, they’re all good sources of fiber and magnesium.(4)
Do ancient grains have less gluten?
There have been studies indicating that ancient wheat varieties may be more tolerable for those with gluten sensitivities.(5) If you avoid gluten altogether but still want to enjoy ancient grains, try quinoa – but be sure to check the label for certified gluten-free. Also, look for gluten-free products containing ancient grains, such as teff tortillas and sorghum beer.
How to Cook Ancient Grains
Farro and einkorn are cooked the same way – bring 3 cups of water to a boil, add 1 cup of uncooked farro or einkhorn, cover and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes or until tender and chewy. Einkorn is also available in pasta, which cooks like traditional pasta.
Cook freekeh by boiling 2½ cups of water, then add 1 cup of uncooked cracked freekeh, cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed.
To cook quinoa, boil 2 cups of water, add 1 cup of uncooked quinoa, return to a boil and then simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for 15 minutes.
Because ancient grains are naturally high in nutrients, they can go rancid over time. Store them in airtight containers in a cool, dark place, or refrigerate or freeze them. Keeping them cold doesn’t affect the cooking method.
(1) Evidence of decreasing mineral density in wheat grain over the last 160 years, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19013359
(2) How Wheat Works, http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/botany/wheat2.htm
(3) USDA Food Composition Databases, https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/search/
(4) What Is An Ancient Grain? http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/whats-whole-grain/ancient-grains
(5) Grundas S.T. Elsevier Science Ltd; 2003. Chapter: Wheat: The Crop, in Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition P6130