Ancient grains bread mix… Greek yogurt with ancient grains… ancient grain pizza crust… ancient grains granola… Everywhere you look in the supermarket these days, the term “ancient grains” seems to jump out at you. But what makes these grains “ancient?” Is there something special about them, or is this just another marketing gimmick?
There’s no official definition of “ancient grains.” All whole grains in a sense are "ancient" -- they can all trace their roots back to the beginnings of time. However, here at the Oldways Whole Grains Council, we generally define ancient grains loosely as grains that have remained largely unchanged over the last several hundred years.
This means that modern wheat (constantly bred and changed) is not an ancient grain, while einkorn, emmer/farro, Kamut® khorasan, and spelt would be considered ancient grains in the wheat family, while freekeh and bulgur are ancient ways of processing wheat. Heirloom varieties of other common grains -- such as black barley, red and black rice, and blue corn -- might also be considered ancient grains. Other grains largely ignored until recently by Western palates (such as sorghum, teff, millet, quinoa, amaranth) are also widely considered to be ancient grains. Sometimes less common grains, like buckwheat, or wild rice, are also included.
Are ancient grains healthier than modern grains? Some of the allure of ancient grains no doubt stems from a vague mistrust of some aspects of our modern food supply. (If modern is bad, ancient must be good, right?) Most of the hundreds of studies documenting the health benefits of whole grains, however, have followed people who ate whole-grain breads and cereals made with modern wheat, bowls of brown rice, and corn tortillas. So there’s no question that modern whole grains are healthy.
That said, ancient grains may have some special benefits. In a 2013 clinical trial, Italian researchers found that Kamut® khorasan wheat lowered cholesterol and cut inflammation markers better than modern wheat. Scientists have also noted that black, red, and purple rice have even higher antioxidant levels than brown rice – and in fact, black rice rivals blueberries in healthy antioxidants.
Healthier for Planet Earth, too! A wide variety of whole grains is not only good for our bodies, it’s good for our planet, too. According to a recent international report, “the diversity of cultivated crops declined by 75% during the 20th century” and with less crop diversity, our food supply is more vulnerable to drought, disease, and insects. Plus, mainstream grains like modern wheat and corn demand high levels of fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation, while many lesser-known grains are more drought tolerant and pest-resistant. By eating a variety of ancient grains along with our modern grains, we create demand that encourages the survival of heirloom varieties that may be crucial to global food security as the world’s climate changes.
So don’t turn your back on modern grains, but mix it up with the widest variety of whole grains possible, to cover all your nutrition bases, and help save the planet. -- by Cynthia Harriman / Director of Food & Nutrition Strategies