Ancient Grains Do a Great Job of Meeting Modern Nutritional Needs
And they also add variety to your cooking
Judging from the name alone you might expect "ancient grains" to appear at an archeological site or in a glass enclosed exhibit at a natural history museum. But names can be misleading because ancient grains are far more likely to turn up in your supermarket aisle in a growing number of food items.
The "ancient" part of the name comes from the fact that these grains have basically remained unchanged for thousands of years. By contrast, corn, rice and a number of the varieties of wheat we currently consume have been selectively bred over time to look and taste much different than their original forms. The hybridized corn we eat today, for example, bears little resemblance to its distant ancestors that once grew wild across the temperate zones of the world.
As a quick introduction, the four ancient grains described below are a good representation (though not a complete one) of these nutritious and easy-to-use foods. Please note that two of the selected ancient grains are gluten-free while the other two contain gluten.
As the most ancient of the ancient grains, barley has been continually cultivated for around 10,000 years having originated in the Middle East and North Africa. About one-third of all barley worldwide is used in beer and other fermented malt beverages but there's plenty left to go around after that. And that's good news because adding barley to your regular diet can help reduce cholesterol levels and heart disease risk and help stabilize blood glucose levels. Barley is also an excellent source of dietary fiber and is rich in antioxidants, calcium and potassium. Ironically, the most common form of barley used in the U.S. – called pearl barley -- is also the least nutritional because of the way it's processed... so avoid the pearls.
In taste and texture and appearance barley is reasonably similar to brown rice. As a result, it makes a great substitute in risottos, soups, stews and side dishes served with veggies, fish or meat. In addition, barley flour works well if you're making bread or muffins. If your diet is moving toward gluten-free, please note that barley does contain gluten.
Besides being kind of fun to say, this cracked and partially pre-cooked form of whole wheat is naturally high in fiber, low in fat and calories (making it an excellent weight management choice) and rich in B vitamins, iron and other minerals that are important to organ function. Bulgur is also low in sodium and can help reduce the levels of inflammation in our bodies that are linked to diabetes and heart disease.
Bulgur (you might also see it as bulgar) is a common ingredient in a variety of heart-healthy Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes like pilaf and tabbouleh salad. This versatile ancient grain can also be used as a higher fiber substitute for oats, buckwheat or brown rice dishes. Because bulgur is already partially cooked it's especially convenient when you're looking for a fast but nutritious side dish. It can also be added to soups or salads where its nutty flavor and slightly chewy consistency add a taste treat as well as a healthy option. Because it's a form of wheat, bulgur is NOT gluten free.
One of the millet's claims to fame is that it's been enjoyed since prehistoric times. The other is that it's the smallest of all grain, but don't let its diminutive appearance fool you. Nutritionally speaking, this birdseed-sized ancient grain is a giant. It's particularly high in fiber and protein (making it a good choice for vegetarians), rich in magnesium and niacin (heart healthy minerals) and also contains phytonutrients which are associated with a reduced risk for hormone-related cancers. As a bonus, millet is an alkaline food which makes it more easily digested than wheat.
Millet makes a good and more nutritionally valuable substitute for rice and potatoes and can be made fluffy like rice or creamier – by stirring more and adding a little extra water. In addition, millet flour can be used in place of wheat flour for breads and other baked goods. And for those with concerns about gluten, millet is, and has been since the time of its cave dwelling early adopters, gluten free.
Your first lesson in preparing and consuming this health-laden ancient grain may be learning how to pronounce it – "keen-wah." In the interest of full disclosure it should also be mentioned that quinoa is actually a seed, though it tends to get placed in the grain category by everyone but botanists.
Regardless of how you say it or where it falls in the plant kingdom, quinoa has become quite the trendy super food with its high concentrations of fiber, calcium, complete proteins, riboflavin and essential amino acids. Based on these ingredients, this little seed masquerading as a grain is associated with everything from lowering the risk for heart disease to preventing gallstones, reducing the frequency and intensity of migraines and decreasing the risk of diabetes.
Quinoa can be used in just about any recipe that otherwise calls for rice or other grains including side dishes, baked goods and cereals. In addition, quinoa is both cholesterol free and gluten free. Because of its popularity quinoa gets a lot of attention and you'll find some interesting, versatile and nutritional chef-made dishes at the Food Network's website.
- Whole Grains (pdf) - more information and recipes from Riverside Wellness and Fitness Center
If you haven't already tried these ancient grains or others, take the opportunity as soon as you can, especially if you're looking to add some variety and health value to your diet. One thing to keep in mind as you do – the presence of ancient grains in a prepared food, like bread for example, doesn't automatically make it healthy. As always, be sure to read the full ingredients list and the nutrition label to get the full picture.
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