Behind the new popularity of ancient grains

WASHINGTON — You’ve probably heard that some strange-sounding foods such as amaranth and quinoa are growing in popularity. But what nutritional benefits do these ancient grains offer? And how do they stack up against wheat, rice and corn? Lean Plate Club blogger Sally Squires recently spoke with WTOP about them.

First: what are ancient grains and why are we rediscovering them?

As you might expect, these are grains that have been around for thousands — even tens of thousands — of years. They include chia, quinoa, sorghum, barley, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, wild rice, teff, spelt, faro, Kamut and Einkorn. Blue corn is also considered an ancient grain by some.

We are rediscovering them because they’re tasty foods that turn out to pack a lot nutritional benefits.

So what do they offer nutritionally that’s different from what we eat now?

They provide carbs, fiber and other nutrients, including vitamins and minerals. They’re nutritional standouts because they pack much more protein, and even nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish, avocados and nuts.

Some are rich in minerals and even provide a day’s worth of them. And a number of the ancient grains are gluten-free, which is another reason that there’s renewed interest in them.

Here are a few examples:

Chia is an ancient Aztec food; its name means “oily.” It’s one of the richest vegetable sources of omega-3 fatty acids, similar to those found in fish, avocados and nuts. It also has protein, calcium, magnesium, iron and antioxidants.

Preliminary research suggests that it can help cut systolic blood pressure and C reactive protein, which may help reduce the risk of heart disease and inflammation.

Quinoa is native to the Andean region of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru.

Incas called this grain the mother of all grains; it’s closely related to beets, spinach and tumbleweeds. With 18 percent protein, and a good amino acid mix, quinoa is packed with fiber, magnesium, phosphorous and iron. Yet it’s gluten-free.

It’s also being considered as a possible crop for NASA’s Controlled Ecological Life Support system, to feed astronauts on long space flights, and is grown in the Rocky Mountains.

Amaranth is native to Mexico and dates to the Aztecs. Known as the King seed, it was such a staple of the Aztecs that Cortez decreed that those who were found with it would be put to death. Despite that, seeds were smuggled out to Asia, where the plant was grown.

Amaranth seeds are very tiny, and look like caviar when they are cooked. Amaranth is a protein winner, at 13 percent. It has no gluten, and also contains lysine, an amino acid; it seems to lower cholesterol and blood sugar and may even have some anti-tumor properties.

Sorghum was first grown in northeast Africa and is now cultivated in India, China, Australia and the U.S.

It’s also gluten-free and has a low-glycemic index, so it won’t make your blood sugar soar. And some varieties are packed with antioxidants that have 7 to 10 times the levels found in blueberries and strawberries.

Sorghum is also high in fiber and has been linked with good digestive and cardiovascular health.


So where do we find these ancient grains?

They’re showing up in bread, cereals, cookies, snack bars. You can buy them to add to your own food, such as smoothies and soups, and you can just have them as a side dish, like you might have rice.


And how do these ancient grains taste?

The taste varies widely. Wild rice, for one, has a heartier and nuttier flavor than white or brown rice.

Are they expensive?

They do generally cost more than standard grains. I found a 24 oz. bag of amaranth flour for about $10 — 3 to 4 times what regular wheat flour costs.

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