Americans eat a lot of wheat—about 130 pounds a year per person, on average, mostly in the form of bread, pasta and pizza. Another favorite grain, of course, is rice. In recent years, many “ancient grains”—sometimes called heritage grains or hyped as super grains— have been rediscovered but remain much less familiar. Some (such as farro) are types of wheat or are related to wheat; others are technically seeds (quinoa) but are often referred to as grains, since they are cooked and eaten like cereal grains. All are worth trying because, by and large, they’re more nutritious than the more common grains, plus they add variety to your diet.
The grains described below are good, sometimes excellent, sources of protein and fiber. They also provide minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc, along with phenols (antioxidants) and other potentially beneficial compounds; some are rich in vitamin E and B vitamins. In contrast to most of the wheat and rice we eat, these grains tend to come in their “whole” form, with their bran, germ and endosperm intact, which makes them more nutritious, just as whole wheat and brown rice are more nutritious than their refined counterparts. For people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, another advantage is that several of these grains—including amaranth, quinoa and teff—are gluten free. A downside is their higher cost.
You can prepare these grains as salads or use them in soups and stews (just boil as you would rice). Some, such as amaranth, teff and wheat berries, cook up well as hot cereals. You can also substitute their flours for wheat flour to increase the nutritional value of breads, muffins and other baked goods. An increasing number of packaged foods— breakfast cereals, pastas, breads and pancake mixes—contain these interesting grains, too, though sometimes in small amounts.
- Amaranth. Native to both Mesoamerica and the Andes and a major food crop of the Aztecs and Incas, respectively, this tiny grain resembles fine couscous and has a nutty, sometimes peppery, flavor. Popped amaranth is a popular street snack in South America. For a grain, it’s relatively rich in calcium—with about 60 milligrams per 4 ounces, cooked. Because amaranth (like quinoa, see below) contains a good balance of essential amino acids and is particularly high in lysine, it is considered more of a “complete” protein than most grains (and plant foods in general). Amaranth is almost always whole, since the grains are too small to easily refine. Be sure not to overcook it since it will become sticky.
- Farro (or emmer wheat). Also called Pharaoh’s wheat, this chewy, nutty-tasting grain is a relative of modern wheat that originated in Egypt thousands of years ago. It’s said to have been widely consumed by the Roman legions, and in Italy today it’s a common ingredient in soups and is used as a substitute for arborio rice in risotto dishes (called farrotto). Many pasta lovers prefer pasta made from farro to pasta made from durum wheat. Look for “whole farro” on labels; if it’s “pearled,” it’s not a whole grain because the bran has been removed.
- Freekeh (or farik). Common in Middle Eastern and North African cuisine, freekeh refers to a harvesting process rather than an actual grain. The grain, typically wheat, is harvested when it is young, yellow, and soft—at its peak nutrition—and then roasted. Similar in texture to bulgur, it tends to have a smoky, nutty flavor. Though freekeh is being billed as the hottest new ancient grain, it’s still not widely available in stores. You might find it in Middle Eastern or other specialty markets; it’s also sold online.
- Quinoa. Called the “mother of all grains” by the Incas, who considered it sacred, quinoa from the Andes is known for being rich in high-quality protein. There are over 120 varieties, in many different colors. Pale yellow quinoa is most common, though red quinoa contains significantly more phenols and has higher antioxidant activity. Quinoa cooks up fluffy with a nutty flavor. Because the seeds are naturally coated with bitter compounds (saponins, which defend against insects), they must be washed before cooking. Even if the package says the seeds were washed, it’s a good idea to rinse them to remove any remaining bitterness. Kañiwa (kah-nyeewah), quinoa’s smaller and lesser-known red cousin, doesn’t need to be rinsed before cooking because it doesn’t have the bitter compounds.
- Teff. Originating in Ethiopia more than 2,500 years ago, teff (sometimes called taf) remains a staple there, where it’s mostly used to make a spongy sourdough bread. It is one of the smallest grains in the world—so tiny (like poppy seeds) that its bran germ, and endosperm cannot be separated, so it can be consumed only as a whole grain. According to the Whole Grains Council, there are about 3,000 teff grains in just one gram (1/28th of an ounce). Like amaranth, teff has about 60 milligrams of calcium per four ounces, cooked. Teff is slightly sweet, with white varieties mildest in flavor; darker varieties taste earthier, even chocolate-like.
- Wheat berries. These are the whole kernels of the wheat plant, from which all wheat products, including wheat flour, are made; only the inedible outer husks are removed. Available in red and white varieties, they resemble short-grain brown rice. When boiled, they have a chewy texture and nutty flavor. Since they are the least processed form of wheat, wheat berries can be even richer in nutrients and fiber than whole-wheat flour. That’s because the processing of whole-wheat flour, even if less extreme than for refined wheat flour, can still degrade some of the kernels’ healthful components.
Ancient grains galore
Labeling these grains as “super”—the latest trend—is hyperbole. All whole grains are healthful, each in its own way. Besides the ones listed here, there are other healthful options, including barley (a cereal grain that helps lower blood cholesterol), spelt (an ancient wheat species), millet (a food staple in Africa and Asia), buckwheat (not related to wheat), khorasan wheat (Kamut is the registered brand name) and a variety of pigmented rices, such as Thai black rice (which get their dark colors from antioxidants called anthocyanins). If your regular supermarket doesn’t carry them, look for them at health food stores, specialty markets and on the Internet.