Go With the An­cient Grains

Com­pared to to­day’s overly pro­cessed grains, an­cient ones like spelt and teff win out when it comes to nu­tri­tion

Better Nutrition - - CONTENTS - By Sher­rie Straus­fo­gel

They may be “new” to Western store shelves, but these hearty grains— and their amaz­ing health ben­e­fits— have been around for thou­sands of years.

Have you no­ticed the wealth of trendy “new” grains at the mar­ket— kaniwa, farro, freekeh, spelt, and teff? Ac­tu­ally, they’ve been around for a long, long time. In fact, these grains are pos­i­tively an­cient.

Only re­cently dis­cov­ered by Western palates, kaniwa comes from the An­des in Peru, where it’s been a sta­ple of lo­cal di­ets for gen­er­a­tions. Farro was men­tioned in the Bi­ble. It’s been found in the tombs of Egyp­tian kings, is said to have fed the Ro­man le­gions, and was even used as a form of cur­rency in an­cient Rome. Freekeh was created thou­sands of years ago in the Fer­tile Cres­cent ( where the Mid­dle East meets the Mediter­ranean Sea). Spelt was so im­por­tant to the Greeks that they gave it as an of­fer­ing to their gods. And teff has been a sta­ple of tra­di­tional Ethiopian cook­ing for more than 3,000 years.

Why the re­newed in­ter­est in these an­cient food­stuffs? For three sim­ple rea­sons: an­cient grains are claimed to be more nu­tri­tious and health­ier than mod­ern grains, they haven’t been ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied, and many are gluten- free. Plus, stud­ies show that peo­ple who con­sume more whole grains may have a lower risk of many chronic dis­eases, in­clud­ing heart dis­ease and type 2 di­a­betes. And any one of these an­cient grains could be­come the next “su­per grain,” kick­ing quinoa right out of the pot.


A fa­vorite grain of food­ies and chefs, farro is high in fiber, iron, and pro­tein. It is hearty and chewy, with a rich, nutty fla­vor, and it’s easy to di­gest. This tasty an­cient grain de­liv­ers about the same num­ber of calo­ries ( roughly 100 per half- cup, cooked) as more tra­di­tional grains, with about 3.5 more grams of pro­tein and fiber than brown rice per half- cup serv­ing. Farro is also rich in vi­ta­mins and min­er­als, in­clud­ing cal­cium, iron, mag­ne­sium, niacin, and zinc.

Some say that farro is the orig­i­nal an­ces­tor of all other wheat. To­day, this Old World heir­loom is still highly re­garded in Italy, where it has been grown for gen­er­a­tions by Tus­can farm­ers and is fea­tured in many tra­di­tional dishes. Use it in casseroles, stews, sal­ads, pi­lafs, tab­bouleh, and cous­cous. Or try your hand at “far­rotto,” an al­ter­na­tive to tra­di­tional risotto.

Farro was found in the tombs of Egyp­tian kings and was used as a form of cur­rency in an­cient Rome.


Just when you finally learned how to pro­nounce quinoa ( keen- wa), an­other healthy grain comes along with an odd sound­ing name. Kaniwa ( pro­nounced ka- nyi- wa) is the lat­est gluten- free su­per grain, not to be con­fused with its cousin quinoa. Tech­ni­cally a seed, it is rich in pro­tein, fiber, iron, cal­cium, zinc, and an­tiox­i­dants. In fact, kaniwa is a com­plete pro­tein, boast­ing all nine es­sen­tial amino acids and seven grams of pro­tein per half- cup serv­ing. Kaniwa is easy to di­gest and has a sim­i­lar sweet nutty fla­vor as quinoa, but is half the size. Kaniwa can be cooked just like quinoa, but it doesn’t need to be rinsed prior to cook­ing. Try kaniwa in place of oat­meal for break­fast, as a rice re­place­ment, or in soups, souf­flés, casseroles, and baked goods.

Teff has more cal­cium and vi­ta­min C than al­most any other grain.


Freekeh ( pro­nounced free- kah) or farik ( Ara­bic for “to rub”) was created when a crop of young, green grain was set ablaze. In a sal­vage at­tempt, the farm­ers rubbed away the burnt chaff to dis­cover the ten­der roasted ker­nels in­side, and freekeh soon be­came a Mid­dle Eastern sta­ple. The grain on the in­side is too young and moist to burn, so what re­mains is firm and chewy with an earthy, nutty, and sub­tle smoky fla­vor.

When it comes to nu­tri­tional ben­e­fits, freekeh dom­i­nates most grains. It’s low in fat and has more than three times the fiber as brown rice and twice as much as quinoa. This means it keeps you feel­ing full long af­ter you’ve eaten it. Freekeh also ranks low on the glycemic in­dex, mak­ing it a great choice for peo­ple manag­ing di­a­betes or those try­ing to keep their blood sugar steady. This power- packed grain is high in iron, cal­cium, and zinc, and it acts as a pre­bi­otic, pro­mot­ing the growth of good bac­te­ria. Freekeh is wheat, how­ever, so if you’re gluten- free, it’s not for you.

Oth­er­wise, freekeh is easy to in­cor­po­rate into your diet. It cooks up rel­a­tively quickly com­pared to many whole grains— in just 20 min­utes. Use it any­where you’d use whole grains. Sub­sti­tute hot freekeh for oat­meal as a hearty hot ce­real topped with milk, honey, nuts, or fruit. Add cooked freekeh to salad, soups, pi­lafs, risot­tos, and tab­bouleh.


A dis­tant cousin to wheat, spelt is more nu­tri­tious, pro­vid­ing a gen­er­ous dose of pro­tein, fiber, ri­boflavin ( vi­ta­min B ), iron, man­ganese, and zinc. Spelt has a ro­bust, nutty fla­vor and chewy tex­ture and can be eas­ier to di­gest than wheat. Be­cause of its high wa­ter sol­u­bil­ity, its vi­tal nu­tri­ents are quickly ab­sorbed into the body.

Orig­i­nat­ing in the Near East more than 8,000 years ago, this heir­loom grain later spread through­out Europe, be­com­ing es­pe­cially pop­u­lar in Ger­many, where it was farmed through­out the Mid­dle Ages. Spelt has never been hy­bridized, so it has re­tained many of its orig­i­nal char­ac­ter­is­tics from an­tiq­uity, in­clud­ing its com­plex fla­vor. Breads and pasta made from spelt are denser and slightly sweeter than those made from white flour. Spelt makes ex­cel­lent pasta, cook­ies, and other baked goods. How­ever, like freekeh, it isn’t gluten- free.


Teff is a tiny whole grain the size of a poppy seed, with a mild, nutty fla­vor. It’s the small­est grain in the world ( about 1/ 100th the size of a ker­nel of wheat). The germ and bran, where nu­tri­ents are con­cen­trated, ac­count for a larger vol­ume of the seed com­pared to more fa­mil­iar grains. It’s a good source of fiber, pro­tein, iron, cal­cium, mag­ne­sium, and zinc. It has more cal­cium and vi­ta­min C than al­most any other grain. Much of its fiber is re­sis­tant starch, which has been linked in stud­ies to im­proved blood sugar, and it is gluten- free.

Teff is the most widely planted crop in Ethiopia, where it’s a di­etary sta­ple of the coun­try’s leg­endary dis­tance run­ners be­cause it’s nat­u­rally high in min­er­als. Mix up your menu with teff. Try it on its own or in stews, veg­gie burg­ers, cakes, cook­ies, and breads. It can be made into po­lenta,

or a hot ce­real with co­conut oil.

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