Grains have been a staple of the human diet for thousands of years. In some ancient civilizations, they were so valuable that they were used as a form of currency, traded for labor and other goods.
Many Americans today are accustomed to getting their grains through ultra-processed wheat. The standard all-purpose flour is ideal for making hyperpalatable breads, pastries, and other processed foods, but it has been linked to gut imbalances, insulin resistance, and even depression.
Wider awareness of these issues has led to popular diet regimens, such as paleo, that eschew all grains in the name of wellness. But a new crop of nutritionists and foodies are urging Americans to reconsider the health benefits of ancient grains.
"The term 'ancient' has really captured the imagination of people in the last 10 years or so," says journalist Maria Speck, author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals and Simply Ancient Grains.
Speck explains that ancient grains are simply old-fashioned staples of traditional diets, which look and taste much as they did centuries ago. They're still used in many parts of the world, though they may be less familiar in the United States.
"Their staying power within our global agriculture system is due in large part to their hardiness and resiliency," says Caroline Sluyter, MS, program director for the Whole Grains Council. She adds that modern wheat is a commodity crop, which means it has been bred for specific characteristics that make it easy to plant, grow, harvest, mill, process, and use in the kitchen.
Some ancient grains are more drought-resistant than modern wheat and may also thrive with lower levels of pesticides and fertilizers. Because they tend to be more nutrient-dense than modern grains — and because some of them are gluten-free — ancient grains can often get labeled as just another health trend.
"But calling them a hippie food does not do them justice," Speck says. "My passion in cooking with these grains was always about how they taste, what they bring to the table — the textures, color, and subtle aromas."
Some ancient grains, like oats or quinoa, are widely known; others, such as teff, millet, or amaranth, may be new to many American cooks. Most of them are prepared like rice or pasta and are relatively simple to incorporate into a weeknight meal.
For Sluyter, the abundance of different types of whole, ancient grains is a real boon for those looking to eat healthier.
"Just as we know a healthy diet should include a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, eating lots of different whole grains is the best way to take advantage of their nutritional benefits."
Experience Life compiled 11 ways to broaden your whole-grain horizons. Here's how you can include more ancient grains in your diet.
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