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Ancient grains lost popularity in the 1700s following the surge in wheat, oats and barley cultivation. Nowadays we can thank novelty-seeking, health conscious consumers for the revival of grains such as spelt, chia, amaranth and quinoa, and their often premium pricing. Clever marketing aims to convince us that these ancient grains are nutritionally superior to more modern variants but it begs the question: are ancient grains superfoods or just super expensive?

What are ancient grains?
While many spell-checks still think ‘quinoa’ is a typo, many people are now familiar with these retro grains. They are added to a growing array of foods – you may have eaten them without even realising it.

  • Spelt is an older variety of wheat; therefore it contains gluten and can be used to make pasta or a nice loaf of sourdough bread. You can buy spelt flour in many supermarkets nowadays. 
  • Chia is a type of seed; therefore similarly to other seeds, it is gluten-free, rich in healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fats, protein and fibre. It has the remarkable ability to absorb water and swells to form a gel, therefore making it a popular ingredient for jams and tapioca-style puddings. If you can get over the fact that chia gel looks like frog eggs, it is quite fun to eat. We quite like it mixed with oats in Bircher muesli. 
  • Amaranth is a gluten-free grain that can be popped like corn. Popped amaranth has a high GI therefore for people with diabetes (and others) it is best eaten in combination with lower GI foods such as oats and nuts for a lower glycemic impact. This combination also makes delicious homemade muesli. 
  • Quinoa is a gluten-free grain that is high in carbohydrate (68%), low in fat (4.8%) moderate in protein (12%) and low GI. Quinoa works well as a substitute for couscous or rice and can be found at your local supermarket, although the flavour is quite different so don’t think you can get away with a sneaky swap – try it in combination with rice for the more steadfast members of the household. 

How do modern grains compare?
You can meet your nutritional needs with ancient or modern grains and seeds. The nutritional profiles are quite similar, including protein content (which many ancient grains claim to be high in). It’s sometimes said that modern crops aren’t as nutritious as they used to be but I have put together a table that shows that isn’t true. There are many environmental (and ethical) issues with modern intensive agriculture but loss of nutritional value isn’t one of them:

Nutrients in wholegrains

The standout difference is the folate content of quinoa – it is higher than many other grains. Folate is a B-group vitamin involved in DNA synthesis and it can help prevent neural tube defects in unborn babies and so is of benefit to women around conception and during pregnancy. However, in Australia and New Zealand most of our conventional wheat-based bread has folate added so there’s no need to switch to quinoa on that basis.

Quinoa porridge

Source: The Low GI Vegetarian Cookbook, Hachette Australia.

What’s good about ancient grains?
Ancient grains are great because they add variety to the diet, giving us additional healthy food options. Instead of rotating between potatoes, rice and pasta at dinner, we now have more choices. These ancient grains also increase the biodiversity of ecosystems, which enhances crop survival and recovery during droughts or disease epidemics. It’s not ideal having most of the worlds food supply provided by a handful of crops if the unthinkable happens and one or several get wiped out by a new disease.

The unplugged truth
• Ancient grains are becoming more popular but are often more expensive.
• Ancient grains are nutritionally similar to modern grains.

Bottom line: old and new grains are equally good for you; whole grains are best because they are packed with vitamin, minerals and dietary fibre.

Thanks to Rachel Ananin AKA for her assistance with this article.

Nicole Senior

Nicole Senior is an Accredited Nutritionist, author, consultant, cook, food enthusiast and mother who strives to make sense of nutrition science and delights in making healthy food delicious.

Contact: You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram or check out her website.