Ancient grains, eaten for centuries and then replaced by mass-produced wheat, are now regaining popularity as a healthy alternative.
Although whole grains are beneficial foods and have been linked with lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and weight gain, today’s wheat, even if unrefined, can be problematic for some people.
Bred for high yields, wheat now contains high levels of gluten, which is a health concern for many. Increased levels of gliadin, another component of wheat, is another side effect of selective wheat breeding to boost mass production, and contributes to chronic inflammation.
By contrast, ancient grains haven’t been tampered with, are typically not refined, and offer an assortment of beneficial nutrients.
“They add variety to the diet, in terms of taste, texture, and nutrition,” says Shelley Case, a leading gluten-free expert, and author of “Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide.”
“There’s no single one that’s the superfood,” she tells Newsmax Health
. “You want a variety.”
Some, but not all, ancient grains are naturally gluten-free. They are appearing more often in chain supermarkets, but are widely available at health-food stores and on the Web.
Treasured by the ancient Aztecs as a “super-grain,” amaranth has an earthy, nutty taste. It contains up to 14 percent protein, including the amino acid lysine, and is a good source of fiber, magnesium, and iron. Studies show that amaranth can lower cholesterol.
Pop amaranth as you would popcorn, or toast it in a skillet until it pops, and eat it as a cereal with milk. Add it to salads and side dishes. Bake with amaranth flour.
Kamut (contains gluten):
An ancient variety of wheat, kamut (pronounced “kah-MOOT”) is higher in protein than regular wheat, and is a nutritious source of fiber, magnesium, iron, selenium, and zinc. A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that kamut helped reduce cholesterol, blood sugar, and levels of chronic inflammation.
Kamut has a nutty taste and the grains, called berries, retain their texture when cooked, making them a good addition to soups, stews, salads, or pilafs, or a side dish in place of rice. Or, use kamut flour in baking.
Farro (contains gluten):
Also called emmer, farro has a nutty, chewy texture and was a staple of Roman legions. An ancient type of wheat, farro is higher in protein and fiber than regular wheat, and a good source of magnesium, vitamin B3, and zinc.
Add it to stews, salads, or serve as an alternative to rice or risotto. Cook 1 cup of farro in 3 cups of water or stock, simmering for 30 minutes.
A staple in India and a popular food in other parts of Asia and South America, millet has a sweet, mild flavor. High in fiber, millet is easy to digest and naturally reduces a body’s acidity.
Uncooked millet can add crunch to breads. Cooked, it can be a side dish, in place of rice or mashed potatoes, or a breakfast porridge.
A staple grain in India and Africa, sorghum is high in antioxidants and fiber, and its edible hull contains policosanol, a waxy substance that is known to lower cholesterol. Its taste and chewy texture is similar to wheat berries.
Sorghum can be cooked into a breakfast porridge or popped and eaten just like popcorn. Substitute cooked sorghum for rice or pasta in soups or stews, or add it to salads or pilafs. Sorghum flour can be used for baking.
Widely eaten in some African countries, teff is made of tiny grains too small to mill, so they are eaten whole. It has a sweet flavor somewhat like molasses. Teff contains fiber and protein, and is high in calcium and vitamin C. Teff also contains resistant starch, which helps control blood sugar and weight.
Cook it to make a porridge or polenta-like dish, add to veggie burgers, or use it to thicken stews or soups.
Although technically a seed, quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) has become a popular grain alternative, and is found in gluten-free pastas and other prepared foods. It contains all the essential amino acids that make up a complete protein, is high in fiber, and rich in minerals, folate, healthy fats, and anti-inflammatory nutrients.
Popular as a meal-in-a bowl salad base, quinoa can also be a side dish, flavored with herbs or mixed with vegetables, or a breakfast cereal.
Einkorn (contains gluten):
Pronounced like “fine corn” without the “f,” it is the oldest form of wheat known to man. Einkorn is exceptionally drought-tolerant and grows in otherwise infertile areas in Europe. Cultivation in the United States is just beginning. Genetically different from our usual wheat, einkorn is higher in protein, lower in starch, and contains gluten that is easier to digest.
Bake with einkorn flour, substituting it for wheat flour in recipes. Or, eat cooked einkorn berries as a cereal or pilaf.
Technically a seed, chia is a popular grain alternative that is high in protein, healthy omega-3 fats, fiber, antioxidants, a variety of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, and copper. It has been shown to improve digestion, help regulate blood sugar, and increase satiety, which helps to control appetite.
Soak 2 tablespoons of chia seeds in 1 cup of water for 15 minutes to make a gel that can be flavored as a pudding or added to sauces, salad dressings, and other dishes as a healthy thickener.
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