We live in a world where anything in the category of “old” is disposed of or considered “passé”. Always in search of the new and exciting, we just accept the same old way of doing things, even if there are better choices. Isn’t it thrilling though, when the really old comes back and we realize that this really old is here to stay? Hey, I’m talking about ancient grains:
Immerse into the cultures that thrived on ancient grains and you’ll go back thousands of years. Thriving ancient civilizations used these grains as their primary sustenance. We Americans (and yes, now the world over) are finally getting it that the cheap, refined and highly advertised foods that have been so available to us are making us suffer from chronic illnesses that our ancestors never experienced.
I discovered these grains quite by accident. In research for my Superfoods presentations, it became ever so clear that “Whole Grains and Legumes” food class (see Superfood Recipes-Whole Grains and Legumes) is a nutritional powerhouse. So I found myself in the specialty grain aisle of the supermarket and honestly, I was only familiar with a couple of the grains, i.e. quinoa and wheatberries. I was totally unaware that many other back-to-the-future culinary gems existed:
THAT was exciting for me because I challenged myself, right there in Aisle 15, to unlock the secrets of nutritional and culinary excellence that these ancient grains held.
Do you need some proof that these original, non-hybridized grains are a better choice than the refined starchy carbs, i.e. white rice, refined breads and pasta, etc. that a lot of us automatically eat with reckless abandon? Well you came to the right place!:
1. Ancient Grains Get Us Back To Our Roots- Ancient “grains” are whole grains or more accurately, whole seeds in the case of amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa that were popular among ancient populations. Their appeal is two-fold:
a. They offer us food that is grown as nature intended, lacking genetic modification or hybridization. It has been theorized, for the science is not truly in on this subject, that our modern high-yield, large scale, chemically fertilized wheat is one of the possible causes in the rise of celiac and other gastrointestinal problems that many people currently suffer from. You might say our intestines haven’t evolved as fast as ag technology!
b. They offer us a rainbow of natural tastes and textures. Our palates have been “dumbed down” to accept refined food options that have been chemically modified and are in the category of “hyperpalatable” (See Curtail Your Cravings!). In contrast, ancient grains offer us a bounty of the harvest directly from the earth, including a rainbow of tastes and textures. My advice is to take it slowly at first if you have never tried these grains. With the increased fiber that ancient grains contain, your digestive system might take a while to get used to actually eating “right.” Trust me, Randy was my taste tester for our grain journey, and he learned the lesson!
2. Ancient Grains Are Packed with Nutrition- To understand the nutrition of these whole grains, let’s first look at the anatomy of a grain:
The husk is the outermost layer (not shown in this diagram) and is inedible. It is removed as the only “processing” ancient grains go through. The outside of the grain is the bran. The inside is the endosperm and the germ is the little “seed” in the inner core of the whole grain. The nutrition powerhouse, the protein, fiber and must have nutrients including antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and essential fatty acids in each grain are located in……. you guessed it, the bran and the germ of each grain. The endosperm is important too for it is the energy source for the whole grain, loaded primarily with carbohydrate. You can guess the rub here though. Refined foods like flour, white rice or “pearled” grains remove the essential bran and germ, leaving only the endosperm. Ancient grains keep the whole package together: bran, endosperm and germ.
Top nutrient players in the whole grain that deserve blue ribbon honors are: Protein, Fiber, B Vitamins and Magnesium. We’ll talk about the protein and fiber benefits in a minute. Having more B vitamins in your diet assist you in metabolizing carbohydrates more efficiently. And look up Magnesium, go ahead, google it. Magnesium has been listed as the most deficient source of minerals in our diet. And if your doctor tells your blood levels are ok, no need to supplement, don’t be so sure. Blood levels don’t reflect total body stores, which are often low.
Magnesium is a key player in so many processes in your body. It strengthens bones by assisting calcium assimilation, is crucial as an intracellular nutrient, and can be a “relaxer”, because it is a natural tranquilizer for all of the muscles of the body, i.e. skeletal, gastrointestinal AND the smooth muscles of the blood vessels. Do you see the connection for heart health here? When they strip our grains of it’s bran and germ, we lose that nutrient protection our body needs.
3. Ancient Grains Have the Science Behind Them- There is an entire basket of positive effects that whole grains have on your health when consumed on a regular basis:
-Lowers total cholesterol
-Lowers LDL (bad cholesterol)
-Maintains HDL (good cholestrol)
-Lowers insulin levels
In turn, scientific studies also support the claim that whole grains, when consumed on a regular basis compared to those who rarely consume whole grains, significantly lowers the risk of :
-Type II Diabetes
4. Take the Rice vs. Ancient Grain Challenge- I made a graph, based on ¼ cup of dry grain weight (that is about a ½ cup actual serving) of white rice, brown rice and a selection of ancient grains:
You can see the large amount of carbohydrate that white AND brown rice have. There is also a small amount of protein, no fiber for white rice and minimal fiber for brown rice. However, look at the profile of the non-hybridized grains. Most of them pack a wallop of fiber and protein to offset the carbohydrate load they have. So what does that mean to you? That higher load of fiber and protein for the whole grains has the effect of filling you up quicker. Fiber slows down your digestion, leveling off that insulin response. And that added protein also, enhances your satiety (See Egg Breakfast Enhances Weight Loss).
My challenge for you? Try white rice one night with your dinner and write down the quantity you ate to feel full. The next night try one of the ancient grains and do the same. Try this experiment over a week, white or brown rice one night, ancient grains the next. I can tell you that Randy and I were fuller with a smaller amount of ancient grains than white or brown rice. Let me know what your results were! I’ll post them on drtobler.com!
5. Ancient Grains Offer Variety- There is such a variety of choices you have in the ancient grain isle of most stores now. The graph I’ve outlined above is really just a sampling of your new and expanded grain choices: quinoa, black barley, amaranth, buckwheat, freekah, wheatberry, farro or kamut. Through a culinary prism, ancient grains are like a Candy Store (without the sugar, with the good protein and fat : ), there is no end to the possibilities! In my next few posts I’ll explore, with you, the individual nutritional values AND (maybe more importantly) the culinary feasibility of a select few of these ancient grains.
1. Ancient Grains Get Us Back To Our Roots.
2. Ancient Grains Are Packed with Nutrition.
3. Ancient Grains Have the Science Behind Them.
4. Take the Rice vs. Ancient Grain Challenge.
5. Ancient Grains Offer Variety.
I had the joy of conducting a class on Ancient Grains, through the Iowa State Extension Service:
I promise, once you try the palette of ancient grain choices, you will not want to come back to the old boring white and brown rice options for your home-cooked meals anymore!
For recipe ideas for this amazing class of grains please see: