If the phrase “ancient grains” makes you think of archaeological discoveries, rest assured that they’re a little fresher than that. Super-aged quinoa is not on the menu—at least, we hope not. Instead, the phrase refers to 12 grains that have remained relatively unchanged in the past thousands of years. They’re popular in Middle Eastern, Chinese, African and Indian cultures, and are slowly making their way over to the west. Some of them, like quinoa and farro, are pretty easy to find. Others you may not have even heard of—but they’re all tasty, healthy and ready to show up on a plate near you.
Here’s why you should give ancient grains a try.
Why are ancient grains good for you?
Western cultures love white grains like white rice and white flour. The problem with “white” grains is that they’re refined, which strips them of most of their nutritional content and natural flavor. In other words, you’re eating empty calories. If you’re eating to get full, that’s one thing, but if you’re health-conscious, whole grains are better for you.
Ancient grains haven’t been stripped of their nutritional content. They tend to have higher levels of B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, protein and zinc—all part of a balanced diet. When you digest them, they’re absorbed into the body more slowly. This helps regulate your blood sugar so that it doesn’t spike and crash. If you have diabetes or other chronic conditions that affect digestion or blood sugar, put ancient grains on your shopping list.
Try these 12 ancient grains
Not all ancient grains will appeal to everyone, especially if you tend to prefer refined grains. However, we bet that you can find at least one satisfying alternative. They make for great rice bowls, salad accompaniments and more. Here are 12 to track down at your local grocery store.
- Amaranth. This gluten-free grain is a good way to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease—use it in place of quinoa, rice and other grains.
- Barley. Out of all the ancient grains, this is the one you’re most likely to have consumed before. Barley is used to make beer, but it’s also a great addition to your soups, salads and casseroles. It’s not gluten-free—but it is good for lowering your bad cholesterol levels.
- Bulgur. You might be familiar with bulgur under a different name, cracked wheat. It is not gluten-free, but it makes a great substitute for rice in many dishes (especially Middle Eastern cuisine).
- Farro. Farro is starting to have a moment in the United States. It contains gluten, but its satisfyingly large and chewy texture makes it a great addition to soups and salads. It’s also a great source of fiber and protein.
- Fonio. Fonio is a type of gluten-free millet. You can use it to make gluten-free baked goods, or on its own as a fluffy, couscous-like grain. It’s full of zinc, magnesium and copper.
- Freekeh. Freekeh contains gluten, but this chewy, earthy, nutty grain is full of carotenoid compounds. It’s similar to brown rice—and you can make as many “let’s get freekeh” jokes as you want when cooking.
- Kamut (Khorasan wheat). Kamut contains gluten. It’s a smart choice for reducing blood sugar levels as well as reducing your bad cholesterol levels.
- Millet. Millet is gluten-free and is great when you’re concerned about inflammation and cardiovascular disease. It’s especially good for keeping your blood sugar under control.
- Quinoa. Quinoa is jam-packed with antioxidants and protein, which makes it a great choice for anyone—but especially vegans and vegetarians. Use this as a substitute for white rice.
- Rye. Here’s another ancient grain that’s used frequently in Western cultures. Rye makes for great bread, and is also used in whiskey for a spicy-sweet flavor. Rye has a high fiber content, which might make it a better natural laxative than whatever over-the-counter remedy you usually use.
- Sorghum. Sorghum is earth’s fifth most-consumed grain, and is packed full of antioxidants. Antioxidants help reduce the number of disease-causing free radicals in your system.
- Teff. Teff grains are tiny but mighty. They’re full of magnesium, iron and even vitamin C—so you can boost your bone health while using this in gluten-free baked goods, soups, stews and more.
Whether you try one of these grains or treat them like Pokemon—gotta eat ‘em all—make sure you put some on your next shopping list. You’ll be surprised at how tasty they are!