Whole and ancient grains are trending up! these days among consumers. Research is showing they are healthier than refined wheats, rate high on the nutritional scale in terms of protein values, minerals, and antioxidants etc., and add more flavour to dishes and baked goods.
But when I walk into the local 'health food store', I end up bewildered at the many whole grain food choices sitting in rows of bags and bins. I've really gotten into quinoa, wheat berries and buckwheat in the past year and have them planted firmly on my bucket list of 'must haves' (in addition to brown rice, pasta or corn), but there are endless other newer choices that I could try.
So, I have questions, like....
i) 'Whole grains' vs 'refined' grains?
ii) 'Ancient grains'?
iii) What's the healthiest 'whole grain' used with what foods?
To help me navigate the bins, I put together a Guide (below). Bottom line, I'm going to keep trying different whole and ancient ones in different ways and keep the variety going.... should be interesting.
i) First, what exactly are 'whole grains'?
A bit of interesting science.... a one-paragraph definition of 'whole grains' from the Whole Grains Council:
Digression about regulatory standards: A product labelled "100% whole wheat" in Canada is not necessarily '100% whole grain', because of our complicated regulatory maze. 100% can really mean 95% of the whole grain kernel. Go figure. In the U.S., however, "100% Whole Wheat" means exactly 100% whole grain. Regulatory harmonization anyone?
ii) Ok, so 'ancient grains'?
There's no official definition of an 'ancient grain' or what I call the 'lost grains'. ConAgra Mills makes a stab at it:
"Modern wheat like corn and rice has gone through dramatic changes in the past 100 years. They've been bred, refined and changed significantly by modern plant science practices. In contrast, ancient grains (e.g., amaranth, quinoa, teff) have remained largely unchanged in the thousands of years they have been in use as dietary staples of our ancestors. Because they haven't been processed or refined, most of them naturally possess higher nutritional values."
iii) Healthiest 'whole or ancient grains' to use for what foods?
Top 12 Plus Those About to trend UP!:
Red, white or black ... the 'mother of all grains' from the Incas, with a highly pedigreed nutritional score and a nutty flavour. A cup of quinoa is packed with 8 grams of protein (similar to a cup of milk) and 5 grams of fibre, plus essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Gluten-free and low glycemic (regulates blood sugar). A powerhouse.
Uses: A side dish like rice, pasta or couscous or for baking. Spice it up!
Wheatberries are grains of wheat without the husk. Since the wheat kernel is left intact, none of the nutrients are stripped away. A cup of cooked wheat berries has about 300 calories, is low in fat, and packed with fibre, 6 grams of protein, vitamins and minerals. They, however, are not gluten free.
Uses: Wheatberries have a nutty, crunchy taste and are easy to use as a side dish. Zing 'em up by adding spices, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. To cook, they need to be simmered for up to an hour (if using hard wheat berries....soft wheat berries take less time.) Cook 'em on Sundays and they keep 4-5 days in the fridge. Bon Appetit has a recipe for Sunday Roast Beef with a Wheat Berry Salad on the side.
Farro (also known as Emmer) is the oldest and original grain domesticated by humans, dating back to the Biblical 'Garden of Eden'. Farro became the primary grain consumed by the Roman Empire; in fact, it helped fuel the Roman legions’ march across Europe. It fell out of favour for centuries and is now being rediscovered as a great source of vitamins, nutrients, protein, fibre and complex carbohydrates.
Uses: Like other whole grains, it can be cooked like rice or used in salads, soups or pilafs. The 'Pearled' form has the hull removed, which shortens the cooking time. Salad recipes made with farro include tomatoes, herbs, mushrooms, etc. (Lorna Sass's book, Whole Grains, Every Day Every Way, has many good recipes).
Some research says buckwheat originated in China; others say it is native to Russia. Nonetheless, it is not a wheat at all -- it's a herb closely related to rhubarb (therefore it's gluten free). Buckwheat has been shown to help lower cholesterol levels and help stabilize blood glucose levels. Buckwheat seeds can be used one of two ways:
- Ground into flour; OR
- Crushed to make 'groats', which can then be cooked like rice.
Uses: Buckwheat is the main ingredient in products like soba noodles (yum!) or pancakes and waffles (which I make and freeze for breakfasts). Roasted groats are often called 'kasha' and used in breakfast porridge.
Kamut is actually called Khorasan wheat and originated in Egypt around 8000 BC. It was prized then, and now, for its superior nutritional values, including high levels of protein (11 grams in one cup), antioxidants and minerals. Kamut can be found in kernel form or ground into flour. It is quick and easy to prepare and has a sweet and slightly nutty taste. It is a good alternative to wheat for people with refined wheat sensitivities to refined wheat; however, it is not gluten-free.
Uses: Kamut is delicious as a side dish (there is a tasty recipe for Kamut, Cranberries and Feta at Kalyn's Kitchen), or look for Kamut pasta or bread.
Amaranth has been cultivated as a grain for more than 8,000 years and was a key part of Aztec religious ceremonies. It was banned for a time when but continued to grow undisturbed as a 'weed', rediscovered in the 1980s and is today gaining popularity. It is very high in fibre (21% of recommended daily value in one cup) and 9 grams of protein. Preliminary research is showing it may help lower cholesterol.
Uses: Amaranth can be used for its kernels or as flour. A stir fry of amaranth with carrots, celery, mushroom and sunflower seeds is a taste sensation. Amaranth leaves are often used in Indian cuisines such as masalas.
LIke other ancient whole grains, barley dates back to the Stone Age. Its most popular usage is in its malted form (i.e., in beer), but it’s much more than that. Though lower in protein than quinoa, barley is still a good source of fibre (six grams per cup, cooked), and in particular cholesterol-lowering soluble fibre. Barley also causes less of a blood sugar spike than whole grain wheat.
Uses: The simplest way to add more barley to your diet is by using the pearled version in chicken soups or beef stews. Like quinoa, it simply requires boiling until soft.
Meet a close cousin of wheat known as spelt. It's an ancient grain that has a higher protein count than today's wheat. It also offers a broader spectrum of nutrients, like Vitamin B2, manganese and niacin, thiamin and copper. Research is still divided on whether it can be a substitute to wheat flour so those who are gluten-sensitive tend to avoid it.
Uses: It can be used in grain form by soaking it overnight and then cooking it. There's an interesting salad with cilantro, lime, and spelt berries at Healthful Pursuit. It can also be used in place of flour.
History shows that millet was consumed in China and Africa back to 8300 BC. Until recently, however, we in North American used it primarily for birdseed. Today, it is the world's sixth most important grain with India producing the most (and using it for example to make the flat bread called 'roti'). In Taiwan, the indigenous folks there hold an annual festival to mark the millet harvest, and sing a traditional hymn. It's posted on YouTube and is well worth watching. I find it haunting.
Millet is a good source of protein (6 grams a cup), and can help control blood glucose levels. Research is being done to ascertain its role in maintaining good muscle and nerve control. It's also gluten-free.
Uses: Millet has more varied uses than many whole grains i.e., flour, pearled grains and even millet flakes. It can be used to replace flour in many forms of baking. If avoiding potatoes, the Grain Council suggests a recipe for Millet-Cauliflower 'Mashed Potatoes'.
12. Rye Berries
Rye berries have recently shown up in a bin at my local health food store. Rye bread has long been a treat but now the grain is available as well. Rye berries are high in vitamins and minerals and low on the gluten scale. Their role in helping to prevent some forms of cancer is being researched.
Uses: Cooking with rye berries can take up to an hour to be done but the result is chewy, mild and a flavour like walnuts. Those who appreciate wild rice will like rye berries. It can be used just like rice or other pilafs.
13. Other Whole and Ancient Grains Trending Up Up Up!
Freekah: Love the name (pronounced 'freek-ah') for this New Ancient Grain. It's early (green) harvest wheat that is toasted to give a smoky flavour and the grain rubbed off. It looks like rice and originated in the Middle East where it has been used for 2,000 years. Early research shows it has 4x the amount of protein as brown rice and is loaded with fibre. Freekah and lentils pair nicely together. Low gluten but not quite gluten free.
Indian ricegrass: Its gluten-free nature is increasing the popularity of this ancient grain. In the past, it was a staple food of Native Americans, especially when the maize crop failed. Ricegrass seeds were ground into meal or flour and made into bread. Since 2000 the rice grass has been cultivated in Montana and marketed as Montina, a gluten-free grain. This ricegrass is super rich in protein (17 grams), fibre (24 grams in just two-thirds of a cup. It has an intense wheat-like flavour.
Sorghum: Its extremely high levels of anti-oxidants make sorghum one to watch as an upcoming superfood grain. It is gluten-free with loads of cooking versatility (baked goods, porridge, popcorn and beer!). For centuries, it as an important staple for millions of rural folks in Asia and Africa, and renowned for its ability to grow in harsh environments.
Triticale: A relative newcomer (1960s) on the whole grain circuit, tritcale is what results when wheat and rye combine. Studies (including ones in Western Canada) are under way to determine its value as a food and biofuel product. To date, it is being ground for flour and used in breakfast cereals.
Red rice: White, brown, wild.... now red rice?? Fun with food indeed. Loaded with protein and anti-oxidants, this grain is under active study. In the meantime, if you find it, try this straightforward recipe for Bhutayi cuisine red pilaf.
Black (or forbidden) rice: This nutty, chewy rice was once known as 'The Emperor's Rice' and prohibited to everyone except royalty. It was believed it was superior and time (and research) have proven this to be the case -- nourishing, high in fibre, vitamins and minerals. Colourful plate indeed, especially if combined with kale and light green lettuce.
Many sources were used to assemble this list, including: Whole Grains Council, Bob's Red Mill, Shape Magazine and ConAgra Ancient Grains, among others. Photos are from common sources or pressroom at the Whole Grains Council.