Ancient grains can help prevent cancer, heart disease and high blood pressure

August 13, 2012

Quiz: What are amaranth, emmer and teff? No, they’re not celebrity baby names. Along with millet, quinoa and rye, they’re part of a class of food commonly referred to as ancient grains. Although they represent some of the oldest plants consumed by humans, for many Americans they’re a new way to eat. ¶ While many are true cereal grains, several, such as amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa, actually originate from broadleaf plants. But they offer the same health benefits, such as helping to prevent cancer, heart disease and high blood pressure. And when eaten as a whole grain, most are high in fiber. ¶ According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines, at least half of all grains eaten each day should be whole (that is, intact, ground, cracked or flaked). Most of us limit our grains to barley, corn, oats, rice and wheat, but you can add variety to your diet by including some ancient grains. And doing so could make it easier to eat the recommended three ounces of whole grains daily. Additionally, several varieties are sources of high-quality protein. ¶ Here are eight of the more widely available ancient grains, often sold in health-food stores, online and sometimes at your local grocery store. Most can be found in flour or whole-grain form, as well as in bread, pasta, crackers, cereals and other baked goods.

Amaranth

One of the earliest known food plants, it was cultivated by the Aztecs and the Incas. (One of the best-known varieties is called Inca wheat.) High in protein and such nutrients as calcium, folic acid, magnesium and potassium, it’s as simple to make as rice. Traditionally eaten as a breakfast porridge, it can also be cooked and added to salads, pancake batter and soups, or eaten as a side dish.

Buckwheat

Despite its name, it’s not a type of wheat; it provides lots of protein as well as calcium, iron, manganese, potassium and zinc. Native to Southeast Asia, buckwheat is common in Eastern Europe and Asia. The flour is used to make various foods, including pancakes and soba noodles. The grains, or groats, can be tricky to cook, so follow directions carefully. Cooked groats are a great addition to side dishes and salads.

Farro (also known as emmer)

One of the first crops domesticated in the Near East, its whole kernels and flour are full of fiber, iron, magnesium, niacin and zinc. It can be served in salads, side dishes and baked goods.

Millet

One of the earliest cultivated crops, it is a staple in Africa, China and India. High in magnesium, whole cooked millet can be served as a side dish or added to soups. When popped, it can be eaten as a snack. Millet flour can be used in baking.


Adding ancient grains to your diet can provide variety and similar health benefits associated with whole grains. (bigstock)
Quinoa

Grown in the Andean region of South America, this ancient seed was named the “mother of all grains” by the Incas. It provides high levels of complete protein and is rich in iron, phosphorus and potassium. Quinoa may require a thorough rinse before cooking to wash off its naturally bitter coating, called saponin. It cooks in about 15 minutes and can be served as a side dish or added to soups and salads.

Rye

Don’t expect this grain to taste like rye bread, which often takes on the distinct flavor of the added caraway seeds. While rye flour is used to make breads and crackers, rye grains can be served hot as a side dish or added to soups and salads. Soaking overnight shortens the cooking time. Rye is high in nutrients, including folic acid, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin and zinc.

Sorghum

Widely popular in Africa, it’s high in fiber, niacin and phosphorus. In India, it is used to make chapatis (a type of flatbread). In the United States, it’s most often ground into flour and used in baked goods.

Teff (or tef)

One of the tiniest grains, with seeds smaller than a pinhead, it’s high in calcium and Vitamin C. In Ethi­o­pia, teff is ground into flour and made into a soft, spongy bread called injera. Teff can also be found in cereals and can be sprinkled on salads or added to soup.

Copyright 2012. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

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