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Ancient Grains – The Health and the Hype

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Ancient grains have created a consistent buzz in recent years, with their popularity even surviving the grain-shunning Paleo trend of late.

But what exactly are these exotic-sounding grains, and do their nutritional profile match up to the hype? Read on for all things Ancient Grains.

What makes a grain ‘ancient?’

Much like the term ‘superfood,’ there is no official definition for an ancient grain. While the Western World has consumed processed grains like wheat and oats for centuries, so-called ancient grains are those that have been enjoyed in their natural, unchanged state by different cultures, for many years and only discovered by the West recently.

Think chia, quinoa, amaranth, teff, millet, wild rice, and farro – you may have even noticed some of these filtering into supermarkets and everyday food products.

What’s good about them?

From a historic standpoint, several ancient grains have been a long-time staple food to ancient civilisations. The Aztecs enjoyed amaranth some 6-8,000 years ago, and the Incas in Peru considered quinoa to be sacred, dubbing it ‘the mother of all grains.’

Nutritionally, these grains are less refined, so being in their wholegrain state means they are generally higher in fibre than modern grains. Fibre not only aids in keeping us fuller for longer, but has also been linked with reduced cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of chronic disease. Ancient grains remain in their whole state, meaning they contain a range of essential nutrients and protective phytochemicals. They also have a more chewy texture than processed grains, making meals more interesting, and are a natural plant-source of protein, so are an excellent addition for vegetarians or those aiming to increase their protein intake.

When a grain is not a grain

While a number ancient grains hail from the same botanical family, a select few are slightly different.

Known as pseudo cereals, these ‘grains’ are not actually grains, but their similar composition and culinary use means they are generally referred to as grains. As such, these pseudo cereals are naturally gluten free, so are suitable for Coeliac’s and those with gluten sensitivity. Pseudo cereals like chia, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, teff, and wild rice are also significantly higher in protein and fibre than commonly used ingredients in gluten-free foods, making them a high-quality and nutritious addition to cooking.

Separating the hype from the health benefits

‘Ancient grains’ has become a buzzword for marketing experts, turning up in everything from frozen meals, to breakfast cereals.

But don’t be fooled into thinking this automatically turns ordinary foods into health foods, as often they are included in minute amounts, and their benefits outweighed by other detrimental ingredients.

Take the Ancient Grains Cheerios launched in the US recently, which compared to the original formula, contains the same amount of protein, less fibre, and more sugar per serve.

And while they boast some impressive health benefits, less exotic-sounding grains like brown rice, oats, and wholegrain bread are still a healthy addition to your diet, without the often hefty price tag.

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How to enjoy ancient grains

  • Try using cooked quinoa in place of oats when making a bircher muesli or porridge
  • Soak chia seeds overnight in milk, then add fruit, yoghurt, nuts and seeds the next morning for an easy chia pudding
  • Experiment with freekeh or farro in summer salads
  • Add some barley into winter soups or casseroles
  • Try buckwheat flour in pancakes or gluten free baking

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