The term “ancient grains” has no official definition, but it’s quickly become a catchphrase among food manufacturers for cereal grains (seeds of grasses) and pseudograins (seeds of non-grass plants) that have remained unchanged for millennia. We enjoy them today just as Incan, Aztec and African civilizations have for thousands of years, with full nutrition intact.
But as I’ve discovered at Expo West, the world’s largest natural food show, our appetite for these wholesome morsels is leading to a range of new and exciting foods. Ancient grain labels are being stamped on hot and cold cereals, pasta, bread, side dishes, burgers, soups, chips, protein bars, baking mixes and even cookies.
For gluten-free consumers, the most popular ancient grains available include sorghum, millet and teff cereal grains, and amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa and kañiwa (also called baby quinoa) pseudograins. Many companies are even lumping chia seeds and flaxseeds under this category – although ancient indeed, and nutritional in their own right, they are not in fact grains.
It’s important to note that not all ancient grains are gluten-free. Einkorn, emmer (otherwise known as farro), freekeh, kamut and spelt are ancient varieties of wheat that contain gluten, and are also enjoying a culinary resurgence. So remember when buying individual grains or ancient grain products to purchase only those that are labeled “gluten-free” and have been tested for gluten.
Though the expression was developed for product marketing, the ancient grain trend is one that I’m happy to see as a dietitian. The mentioned gluten-free varieties provide a wide range of vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, antioxidants and other naturally occurring components that make them superior choices for those on a gluten-free diet.
Refined grains and starches, which are often the main ingredients in most gluten-free products, lose many nutrients during processing. White rice, for example, has the outer bran layer and germ removed, leaving it with just two grams of fiber and significantly reduced levels of calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc and B vitamins. The accompanying chart highlights the nutritional deficiencies of white rice when compared to gluten-free ancient grains and other unrefined gluten-free cereal grains.
Helpful Tip: So that you always have healthy whole grains on hand, cook up extra quantities, let them cool completely and freeze in smaller portioned packages. On busy days, they can be thawed in the refrigerator or quickly defrosted in the microwave. For serving, simply heat and season for a side dish, use as a base for stir-fries or soups, or combine the cold, cooked grains with fresh, chopped vegetables and a zesty salad dressing.
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Shelley Case, RD, is an international celiac nutrition expert, consulting dietitian and author of Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide. See www.glutenfreediet.ca.