It’s the health term that everyone’s talking about. We spoke to the experts to see if there’s any credibility to the growing trend and whether some grains are in fact, greater than others
Taking inspiration from how our ancestors ate is the health trend that’s picked up significant pace over the last couple of years. From the popularity of diets such as the Paleo diet and Hadza diet to the demand for stress-fighting herbs with Ayurvedic roots such as adaptogens , the future of wellness could well lie in the past. One emerging category that’s seen noticeable growth in this regard is that of grains or more specifically, ancient grains.
While there isn’t an official definition for them, they’re generally characterised as being grains or seeds that have been largely unchanged over the last several hundreds of years. “Ancient grains are grains or pseudograins [seeds or grasses that commonly fall under the ‘grains’ umbrella], that haven’t been selectively bred to create desirable modern attributes in the crops from a farming perspective, such as high yields and pest resistance,” explains nutritional therapist Libby Limon . “They are in their natural evolved formed.”
Quinoa and chia seeds are the most well known, but others include millet, buckwheat, amaranth seed, spelt, sorghum, bulgar, finger millet, kamut, freekeh, farro, einkorn and barley. However, the more lessons we learn from the diets of our predecessors, the more insights we’re likely to get into the various types. Take for example the recent emergence of fonio (aka the ‘grain of life’), Africa’s oldest grain which has been highlighted by Mintel Global Food Science Analyst and nutritionist-dietitian Michelle Teodoro as one to watch. Part of the millet family, the nutty-flavoured couscous-like grain contains higher levels of iron, protein, dietary fibre and phosphorus than the most popular ancient grain, quinoa plus, its gluten-free and low GI attributes give it more inclusive appeal. For now though, it’s still very much a niche ingredient and it isn’t widely available.
Considering the growing demand for nutritionally dense, natural and minimally refined ingredients, it’s little surprise that ancient grains are increasing in popularity - and brands are expanding their offerings as a result to quite considerable degree as a result. Mintel states that the total number of global food and drink product launches containing ancient grains increased by 49% between March 2014 and February 2017, with massive increases also seen in the number of products containing 'ancient grains' in their descriptions over the last few years too. Interestingly also, Mintel’s 2017 Food and Drink Trend ‘In Tradition We Trust’ report highlights consumer confidence as playing a key role in the mounting interest surrounding traditional foods from history like ancient grains, stating that products linked to the past appeal to those seeking an element of comfort from modernised updates of age-old ingredients, formulations, flavours and formats. The market research company therefore predicts that products are likely to look to highlight these links even more in the coming years to build on this further.
What are the health benefits of ancient grains?
As touched upon earlier when discussing fonio, ancient grains often possess strong nutritional profiles. “They are nearly always used as wholegrains so contain healthy fibres, are complex slow releasing carbohydrates and have high micronutrient density when compared to modern refined grains,” says Libby. Some could also appeal to those with intolerances too. “Although some contain gluten, the types of gluten they contain are arguably easier to digest and less likely to cause intolerance,” she says. “The pseudograins such as quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth are actually seeds so are completely gluten-free and have a higher protein content profile too.”
Are they better than modern grains?
In some ways yes. As explained above, some people are able to tolerate them better than other grains but from a broader perspective, they could be better for the environment too. “They are more environmentally friendly as they are less likely to be over or intensively farmed,” says Libby. “Compared with modern wholegrains such as rice or oats though, I wouldn’t necessarily say they are superior from a nutrient perspective,” she says. “Every food has its own nutrient profile, so having a wide and varied diet of healthy foods, including lots of different wholegrains for those who tolerate grains is ideal.”
In consultant dietitian Linia Patel’s opinion, treating wholegrains as a regular fixture in your diet should be the main objective (if you can tolerate them) rather than fretting about whether they’re ancient or not and if viewed from this perspective, they could be worthwhile incorporating. “Like any wholegrain, ancient grains are unrefined, so they haven’t been stripped of valuable nutrients during the milling process,” she explains. “Wholegrain foods will contain more fibre and will be richer in B vitamins and vitamin E, minerals like selenium or manganese or copper, a higher content of omega-3 fats, higher protein levels and more antioxidants than refined and processed grains (like white pasta or rice).” She adds, “Evidence is growing that eating wholegrains regularly as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle helps to keep us healthy and may assist to reduce the risk of many common diseases. In the UK there are no official recommendations, but most experts recommend at least three servings a day.”
Whether they’re healthier than modern wholegrains is still up for debate in her opinion. “Ancient grains are very often marketed as nutritional powerhouses that are ‘cleaner’ choices than standard wheat or rice varieties and while ancient grains are generally eaten in their whole forms, healthy wholegrains need not be exotic.” Linia also makes the point that ancient grains are more expensive than modern ones and so are therefore less likely to be eaten often. “A major downside is their higher cost due to the hype,” she highlights. “Common cheaper grain products like brown rice, wholegrain and seeded bread, oats and regular popcorn offer the same wholegrain goodness.” She adds, “My advice for when you’re eating grains would be to choose wholegrains - if this also includes eating ancient grains as well (and your budget allows it) then great!”
How can you cook them?
With ease, it’s refreshingly complication-free. “Most have been used in traditional cooking cultures, so that can be a helpful starting point,” says Libby. “For example, buckwheat flour is traditionally used to make pancakes (galettes) in Brittany and to make noodles in Japan (soba). Quinoa is added to soups and stews in Peru, spelt is traditional European bread grain and freekeh comes from the Middle East so is great in fresh salads.
“Once you know your grain you can start to get creative, exploring recipes and making your own. I use quinoa in place of rice or often use it as a salad base,” she recommends.
Versatile and adaptable, they can easily slot into your daily menu as a substitute to suit your dietary needs and preferences. “Chia seeds can be used as an egg replacement for vegans, or added to smoothies, yogurt and baked goods…or just sprinkled on anything and everything!” says Linia. Some can also act as a useful way to add bulk and texture to meals. “Barley is tasty in soups, risotto, stir-fries and salads; sorghum can be used in place of wheat flour in baking or cooked whole in place of other grains like rice,” recommends Linia. “Teff acts as a thickening agent so can be added to soups, or used in place of small grains in baking recipes or on salads, and spelt can be used in place of rice, pasta or oats or in place of flour in baked goods.”
If you’re feeling inspired, why not start by trying this Lucy Bee Quinoa Rainbow recipe or for a winter warming meal, one of these healthy porridge recipes some of which are made with buckwheat, quinoa, chia seeds or spelt. In terms of making wholegrains infinitely more interesting to eat, they’ll definitely hit the mark.