Ancient grains are back in vogue… and for good reason
Ancient grains are making a comeback. These nutritional powerhouses boast a high protein and fibre content and contain a raft of essential vitamins and minerals. Additionally, they are often far less refined than their more contemporary counterparts, thereby retaining their nutritional qualities. Research suggests that people who regularly include whole grains as part of their diet have lower cholesterol levels and are less likely to develop diabetes and certain cancers. The high fibre content of these grains may also assist with weight management by increasing satiety. They seemingly tick every nutritional box. Here’s the low-down on a handful of popular ancient grains.
Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is a gluten-free grain emanating from the Andean region of South America. It punches well above its weight in the nutrition stakes. Quinoa has a higher protein content than potatoes, brown rice and millet. It’s one of the few plant foods known to be a complete protein as it contains all the essential amino acids (building blocks of protein). It also has a relatively high fibre content and contains a wide array of vitamins and minerals including thiamine, riboflavin, B6, folate, iron, magnesium, potassium and phosphorous. Prior to cooking, it is important to rinse quinoa in order to remove any excess saponins – a bitter-tasting compound. With its subtle flavour and crunchy texture, quinoa is particularly versatile and works exceptionally well in salads and risottos or as an accompaniment to meat or fish.
Amaranth is a gluten-free grain once revered by the Aztecs. It is a good source of vitamins A and C, folate, thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin, as well as minerals such as iron, potassium, zinc, calcium, copper, and manganese. Additionally, there is some evidence showing that regular consumption can lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Like quinoa, amaranth is a versatile grain and as such, can be included in breakfast cereals as well as soups and stews.
Bulgur is a grain made from several different wheat species. It has a light nutty flavour and is common in European, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine (it is a key ingredient in tabbouleh.) Compared to both quinoa and amaranth, it contains less protein and dietary fibre. However, it is a fantastic source of manganese – an important mineral involved in bone and blood health. Bulgur can be used in soups, stuffings and casseroles.
Freekeh is a grain made from green wheat and is popular in Middle Eastern cuisine. It is considered to be a staple among Israel’s Druze community. Freekeh has a high dietary fibre and protein content and is a low GI (glycaemic index) carbohydrate food, making it a great choice for diabetics. It even contains iron for healthy red blood cells, potassium for nerve and muscle function as well as a small amount of calcium for strong healthy bones. Freekeh can be added to salads or pilafs and served alongside meat or fish.
Barley is a cereal grain and member of the grass family. It has traditionally been used as a fermentable material for beer and whisky and is commonly made into malt. Barley has one of the lowest GI values of any carbohydrate, making it a fantastic choice to help regulate blood sugar levels. It also contains a stack of vitamins and minerals ranging from thiamine, niacin, B6, iron, magnesium, phosphorous and zinc. Barley even packs a punch with regards to protein and fibre. It’s a versatile grain that can be used in soups, stews and risottos (as a substitute to high GI Arborio rice). N.B. Barley contains gluten and is therefore unsuitable for those with coeliac disease.
Let’s drop the superfood tag – no food is morally superior to another — not even ancient grains. Nevertheless, oats are still classed as the gold standard by dietitians. Here’s why:
In short, oats are rich in long-sustaining carbohydrates called beta glucan – a soluble fibre that inhibits cholesterol reabsorption. Oats also have a moderate protein content and contain a raft of vitamins and minerals. They promote satiety, which may assist with weight loss, and curb blood sugar spikes in diabetics. Plus they taste pretty good too. Not to mention that they’re super cheap; they are much less expensive than their fancier wholegrain counterparts like quinoa, amaranth and sorghum.
While you may associate oats with porridge and breakfast cereals/mueslis, they can be used as a topper for yoghurts and custards, and used in a healthy version of that Aussie favourite, the apple crumble. Alternatively, they can be used to make muesli slices or fruit cakes. Any way you look at it, oats are a winner. Just don’t call them super.
Other ancient grains include buckwheat, chia, millet, rye, sorghum, teff, farro and couscous. Include ancient grains in your diet. They’re freekeh-ing good for you!