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Are ancient grains healthier than other grains?

Ancient grains have been around for thousands of years, long before they were used to drive up sales in the cereal aisles. The ancient Egyptians baked bread from farro wheat, and the now trendy chia was grown by the Aztecs. But do these exotic grains have health benefits that surpass modern wheat?

The Oldways Whole Grains Council describes ancient grains as whole grains that have remained free of changes for hundreds of years. Unlike modern wheat, which has undergone many changes to meet production needs, ancient grains have not been subjected to any wheat breeding or changes.

However, all whole grains (apart from modern wheat), and some heirloom varieties of whole grains, are considered ancient grains. In fact, while the term ancient grain evokes feelings of nostalgia for a time when grains were grown without chemicals, the term doesn't really mean much. It is not used as a technical term by scientists, including nutrition professionals.

farro, an ancient grain

All whole grains are nutritious

Any whole grain has wonderful nutritional benefits, regardless of whether they are ancient or not. They are filled with cleansing fiber, chock-full of vitamins and minerals, and also contain protein. The wheat kernel also contains beneficial omega-3 fats. California Grains, a group of farmers who aim to revive more grain diversity, says to "Expect more flavor, aroma, and nutrition," from fresh whole grain products.

Ancient grains do have more benefits than modern wheat, especially for the climate. They are grown with lower amounts of pesticides and fertilizers. Ancient grains such as millet and spelt can sprout in poor soils where wheat cannot grow. Most of all, ancient grains need less water than conventional crops, and are easy to grow in your backyard.

Ancient grains have a higher antioxidant profile, and more vitamins and minerals than other varieties of grain. However, in the U.S., vitamins and minerals are added to enriched flour and other foods labeled as enriched. These are thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, iron, and folic acid. Calcium and vitamin D are optional.

A small study noted that ancient grains may reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease, and control blood glucose better than modern wheat varieties. After 8 weeks, participants who ate bread made from ancient grains showed a significant improvement in total and LDL cholesterol (the so-called bad cholesterol), and blood glucose, a marker for diabetes, compared to those who ate modern wheat bread. The study was completed in Italy, and these flours would be hard to find in the U.S. Importantly, the study also showed that these benefits were achieved regardless of whether the grains were organic or conventionally grown.

Note that when ancient grains are added to products, it doesn't necessarily make the food more nutritious. When ancient grains are added to a cereal that has high amounts of sugar per serving, you won't be reaping the benefits of eating a whole grain. You're better off cooking the grain yourself and topping it with fruit, nuts, or shaved coconut.

California farmers support diverse grains

In my next post, I'll list the types of ancient grains to look for, including ancient grains for those with celiac disease or following a low FODMAP diet for digestive conditions.

Find out more about California farmers and the diverse grains they grow, or purchase a harvest catalog at California Grains. The California Grain Campaign supports small-scale farmers in the environmentally sustainable production of whole grains. They list upcoming events and you can download a free Baker's Guide with information on cooking with a variety of whole grains.

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