What's old is new again.
Ancient and "exotic” grains are staging comebacks and making debuts.
As with many food trends, this one first surfaced in small natural food stores and spread to big national chains.
Nearly one in five American adults bought ancient grains from a restaurant or store in 2015, with quinoa topping the list.
In a sign of the times, last year General Mills introduced Cheerios + Ancient Grains, featuring quinoa, Kamut wheat, and spelt.
Like the rise of organic foods and heirloom vegetables, the "ancient grains” trend rests on the promise of superior flavor and nutrition.
Some of the growing interest in ancient grains flows from the fact that certain ones — and all grain-like fruits and seeds — are gluten-free.
And, as we'll see, some people who are sensitive to gluten may not have the same problem with ancient grains that contain this protein.
Some bestselling books attack grains across the board, but the facts don't support their claims ... at least with regard to moderate enjoyment of genuinely whole grains.
Let's take a closer look at ancient and exotic grains, and why people are seeking them out.
What are the newly popular ancient grains?
These are the most popular ancient grains ... and grain-like fruits and seeds:
Ancient strains of wheat (All contain gluten)
Spelt • Einkorn • Farro (Emmer) • Kamut (Khorasan wheat)
Grain-like fruits and seeds (All are gluten-free)
Millet • Quinoa • Amaranth • Buckwheat
Exotic cereal grains (All are gluten-free)
Teff • Sorghum
Below, we'll take a closer look at each of these foods ... but let's start by describing the deficiencies of modern wheat.
Modern wheat: Inferior to its ancient forebears
Modern wheat varieties lack the nutritional punch of their agricultural ancestors.
These wheat hybrids also suffer from higher levels of rapidly digested sugars and other "simple” carbohydrates.
And, compared with ancient forms, modern wheat hybrids provide less protein and fewer vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Accordingly, today's wheat – even whole wheat – appears less healthful than wheat grown as recently as the late 1800s or early 1900s.
In addition, conventional wheat farming relies on herbicides and pesticides, which reduce the plants' need to produce the protective compounds that do double duty as beneficial antioxidants. (See Organic Crops Offer More Antioxidants
Those antioxidants are concentrated in the outer bran layer of whole wheat "berries”, so they're entirely absent from white wheat flour (see "Whole grains' overlooked advantage", below).
In contrast, heritage strains of wheat pack a more powerful nutritional punch, and may not cause some gluten-sensitive folks as much — or any — gastrointestinal distress.
Likewise, early lab evidence suggests that whole-grain breads made with sourdough culture rather than Baker's yeast may be less likely to trigger gluten sensitivity.
Of course, if you receive a diagnosis of celiac disease, you must avoid gluten entirely, regardless of the source.
However, if you are among the small percent of people allergic or sensitive to gluten, you may want to try ancient grains that contain this protein. Start with very small amounts, and work your way up to larger quantities.
And if you can't tolerate any gluten from any source, gluten-free ancient and exotic grains can add vibrant, nutritious variety to your diet.
Now, let's tour the most popular ancient grains and examine their nutritional attributes.
Ancient and heirloom strains of wheat
All of these ancient ancestors of wheat contain gluten.
However, it may not take the same form — or impact gluten-sensitive people as much — as the gluten found in modern wheat.
Note: When we say that an ancient form of wheat "has more" of or is "higher in" a given nutrient, that's in comparison with modern varieties of wheat.
• Farro, also known as emmer wheat, was cultivated in ancient Egypt and is still commonly used to make pasta in Italy. It offers more fiber, vitamin B3 (niacin), and zinc.
• Spelt is substantially higher in protein, vitamin B6, niacin, iron, and zinc. Archaeological evidence suggests that it was cultivated in Europe and the Caucusus region as early as 5,000 BC.
• Einkorn ranks among the first domesticated plants, judging by remnants from Turkey that date back to about 8,650 BC. It has more protein, fat, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin B6, and beta-carotene.
Interestingly, Australian researchers who crossbred modern wheat with einkorn produced a crop that's substantially more salt-tolerant than modern wheat varieties. That matters because soil salt levels are rising in many regions worldwide.
• Kamut originated in the Khorasan region of ancient Iran (Persia), and it offers more protein, selenium, zinc, and magnesium.
Three recent clinical trials discovered that people who substituted Kamut-based whole-grain products for conventional whole-wheat products showed significant drops in risk factors for heart disease and diabetes.
And two recent lab studies found that Kamut protected rats' livers against oxidation and inflammation considerably better than modern whole wheat could. The researchers attributed that benefit to differing antioxidant profiles in the two wheat varieties, and to the two grains' differing effects on the body's own internal antioxidant network.
The researchers also found that using sourdough cultures to "rise" either Kamut flour or modern wheat flour produced better health effects in rats fed either food, compared with using Baker's yeast.
Grain-like grasses, seeds, and fruits
All of these grain-like grasses, seeds, and fruits are naturally free of gluten.
• Quinoa – known as "the mother of all grains” by the Inca – is unusually rich in folic acid, complete protein, healthy fats, and antioxidants.
• Amaranth formed an important part of Aztec and Incan diets. It's a cereal-like flower bud that looks like millet or couscous. Like quinoa, it's high in complete protein, the amino acid lysine, calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium.
• Sorghum, which has for centuries been used a livestock feed, is beginning to show up back on the human menu. Sorghum is rich in antioxidants and various minerals and vitamins, depending on the strain.
• Millet, which is a kind of grass, produces seeds that have been a staple food throughout India, China, Africa, and South America. Millet is rich in antioxidants and manganese.
• Teff is best known as the basis for the spongy Ethiopian sourdough bread called injera. Its cultivation dates back to about 4,000 BC.
Teff physically resembles millet and quinoa, and offers substantial amounts — more than most other grains — of iron, protein, calcium, vitamin C, and fiber.
Its iron and mineral content has made it popular among endurance athletes, with studies showing that bread made from teff rapidly improves female runners' iron levels (Alaunyte I et al. 2014).
Interestingly, a similar study using fiber-rich wheat bread found that it reduced blood iron levels in female runners (Bach Kristensen M et al. 2005).
Finally, about one third of the fiber in teff is a type known as "resistant starch", which is also found in beans, and helps stabilize blood sugar.
• Buckwheat: Compared with wheat, buckwheat is high in "complete” protein, boasting high levels of all nine essential amino acids.
Buckwheat also provides substantial amounts of fiber, B vitamins, zinc, selenium, magnesium, manganese, and phosphorus.
Despite the fact that its name includes "wheat”, buckwheat is a flowering plant related to rhubarb, whose triangular seeds are used like a grain.
Although underappreciated in this country, buckwheat has long been a staple food in central Europe, where it's known as kasha. Buckwheat is also a key component of noodles in Japan (soba), Korea, and Northern Italy (pizzoccheri).
When the outer, fiber- and antioxidant-rich hull is removed the result is called buckwheat groats, and this refined product is not nearly as nutritious.
European folk tradition views buckwheat as a "blood-building” food … a reputation explained by its high levels of a polyphenol-type antioxidant called rutin, which helps prevent dangerous blood clots and may strengthen capillary walls.
As Harvard magazine wrote in 2012, "... if scientists had tried to design a clot-preventing molecule, they could scarcely have created one more perfect than rutin.”
Whole grains: Good for whole-body health
Exciting new research continues to uncover added nutritional benefits of whole grains.
Previous epidemiological (population) studies have linked diets rich in whole grains to reduced risks of heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, and diabetes.
A recent evidence review by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found that eating more whole grains may reduce the risk of premature death (Zong G et al. 2016).
They examined a dozen epidemiological studies, as well as data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which encompassed diet and mortality information on nearly 800,000 participants.
The Harvard team's analysis concluded that people who ate the most whole grains (about 4 servings per day) were less likely to die during the study period, compared with those who ate little or no whole grain.
Specifically, people who reported eating about 70 grams (2.5 ounces) of whole grains per day were 22% less likely to die, 23% less likely to be diagnosed with heart disease, and a 20% less likely to develop cancer, compared with those who ate little or no whole grain.
According to Qi Sun, senior author of the Harvard study, "These findings further support current dietary guidelines that recommend at least 3 daily servings (or 48 grams) of whole grains to improve long-term health and prevent premature death.”
The Harvard group attributes these benefits to the fact that whole grains provide fiber and key vitamins and minerals.
Oddly, they overlooked the fact that whole grains provide a benefit more often associated with fruits and vegetables … see "Whole grains' overlooked advantage: Antioxidants”, below.
The fiber in whole grains leaves you feeling fuller for longer, thereby reducing cravings for food and their calorie intake.
Fiber also helps to lower cholesterol levels and reduces the body's insulin response to dietary sugars, thereby reducing the risk for heart disease and diabetes.
Whole grains' overlooked advantage: Antioxidants
Few people realize that whole grains are rich in the same kinds of antioxidants that make fruits and vegetables extraordinarily healthful.
The often-overlooked antioxidant properties of whole grains – especially ancient strains – help explain the reduced rates of disease and death seen in the recent Harvard evidence review and other studies.
In fact – like whole grains themselves – cereals and snacks made from whole grains provide beneficial polyphenol-type antioxidants in amounts that rival those found in colorful fruits and vegetables.
According to Professor Joe Vinson, Ph.D., of the University of Scranton, "Early researchers thought that fiber was the active ingredient for these benefits in whole grains, [and were] the reason why they may reduce the risk of cancer and coronary heart disease. But recently, polyphenols emerged as potentially more important."
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