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Sanchia Parker

Sanchia Parker

Accredited Practising Dietitian
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5 ancient grains to add to your plate

Experts — Posted 07/12/15

Grown and harvested for thousands of years, ancient grains can pack a powerful nutritional punch. Accredited Practising Dietitian Sanchia Parker reviews the best ones to add to your diet.

Ancient grains like amaranth, freekeh and teff are having a definite moment in the spotlight. This isn’t much of a surprise – their popularity goes hand in hand with an increasing interest in reconnecting with more traditional ways of eating; focusing on minimally processed whole foods, eaten mindfully. 

These grains are seen as healthier than modern grains. This is mainly because ancient grains are rarely processed, and are often sold and eaten in their whole state. Many ancient grains are also gluten free, which is proving popular with the growing consumer base opting for gluten free products. 

So add some history to your plate and experiment with some new flavours and textures. Here are five to get started with. 

1. Freekeh 

What is it? Freekeh is young, green wheat that has been toasted and cracked. Because the grains are harvested while young, they retain maximum nutritional value, and are full of flavour and texture. 

Taste: This grain has a nutty, chewy texture with a mild smokiness, thanks to it being toasted. 

Nutrition: Freekeh is a comparable swap for white rice, so use it where you would rice. Nutritionally, it’s a great alternative as freekeh has four times the fibre of white rice and double the amount of protein. 

The verdict: It can be substituted for rice in almost any recipe and it is easy to prepare in the microwave. It’s full of flavour and a nutritious low-GI option. 

2. Kañiwa 

What is it? While not strictly a grain, kañiwa is a small dark red seed native to Peru and Bolivia. It’s dark red in color and about half the size of a quinoa seed. 

Taste: Since it is related to quinoa the taste is very similar, imparting a mild nutty flavour, but without the bitterness. 

Nutrition: Like its cousin quinoa, kañiwa contains high level of protein (around 15%), a complete amino acid profile and higher iron levels than most grains, making it a good choice for vegans and vegetarians. Coeliacs can enjoy this too as its also gluten free. 

The verdict: Those who enjoy quinoa could see this as a preferable swap due to its shorter cooking time, and the fact that it isn’t coated with the bitter saponins found on quinoa, which need rinsing off before eating. 

3. Sourghum 

What is it? Sourghum originated in Eastern Africa, and can be dated to 4000 BC. Due to its hardy nature, it is still popular in Africa as a staple food for half a billion people. 

Taste: Sourghum has a mild, light flavour, making it a great addition to many meals – both savoury and sweet. 

Nutrition: A good option for people with coeliac disease, this gluten free grain doesn't have an inedible hull like some grains, which means it can be eaten with its outer layers, retaining more of its nutrients.  

The verdict: It can be boiled and eaten like rice, cracked and eaten like oats, ground into flour and used in baked goods, or popped like popcorn.

4. Teff 

What is it? The word teff means ‘small,’ a nod to the fact this is the world’s smallest grain. It comes from the seed of a grass in Ethiopia.

Taste: Different coloured grains provide different flavours – white grains have a mild, sweet flavour, and darker grains a sweet, earthy flavour.

Nutrition: Teff’s main claim to fame is its calcium content. A cup of cooked teff provides nearly the same amount of calcium as half a cup of milk. 

The verdict: It’s traditionally used to make a spongy flatbread in Ethiopia, but as the grain gains in popularity, its uses are becoming more varied. 

5. Amaranth 

What is it? Amaranth originally hails from South America where it was used by the Aztecs. Similar to quinoa and kañiwa, it’s not technically a grain, but is classified as a ‘pseudo-cereal’. 

Taste: It has a nutty, malty taste, best when toasted prior to eating. 

Nutrition: It’s a popular choice for those who follow a gluten and wheat free diet, and boasts a high protein content (13-14%), high levels of dietary fibre and is unique in that it contains lysine, an amino acid not found in other grains. 

The verdict: Puffed or flaked amaranth is a popular addition to cereals and snacks. The flour can be used in baked goods or the grain can be used whole as porridge, mixed into soups and so on. 

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