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Beyond Chia Pets: All About Ancient Grains

Until relatively recently, the only reference to “Chia” in popular culture was the Chia Pet®. My, how the once lowly chia has risen to nutritional heights (along with an assortment of other “ancient” grains). Like many nutritional practices, chia seeds reflect the rediscovery of ancient wisdom.

beyond chia pets: all about ancient grains bowl of chia seeds with silver spoon

What exactly is an “ancient” grain?

Modern grains

Our modern industrial food supply relies heavily on hybridized (and often genetically modified) grains. To feed more people at a lower cost, modern grains like wheat and corn were developed to produce a higher yield than their wild counterparts. The downside? The basic nutritional composition of the grains, and the prepared foods we depend on, have been downgraded.

Ancient grains

In contrast, ancient grains have been cultivated for millennia as a vital source of nutrition around the world. They have remained virtually unchanged (hybridization has occurred naturally, if at all). Cultivation, harvest, and yield of these grains is challenging and not readily adaptable to modern agronomics.

What makes ancient grains so healthy?

Ancient grains are consumed as “whole” grains, which means you get the maximum nutritional benefit from them. Consuming the whole grain incorporates more nutritious plant parts (the fiber-dense bran and the nutrient-rich germ), which are otherwise processed out. The Mayo Clinic lists six healthy benefits derived from consuming fiber, four of which relate to reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

For people concerned with high cholesterol, ancient grains like flax and chia also offer the benefit of Omega-3 and Omega-6. For vegans with cholesterol concerns, flax and chia seeds are often processed for their oils to provide an Omega alternative to fish oils.

Whole grains vs refined grains Harvard

Refined grain products incorporate only the endosperm, which is the biggest part of kernel. Then endosperm is comprised mostly of starchy carbohydrates and smaller amounts of protein and vitamins.

The invention of Wonder Bread, the scorn of bread aficionados everywhere, resulted from the modern flour milling practices of stripping the bran and germ. At the turn of the century, low nutrient grain products like Wonder Bread led to nutrient deficiencies like pellagra and beriberi in many U.S. consumers. Following the USDA’s “flour hearings” of 1940, bakers began to fortify their bread (i.e., putting back in nutrients that were removed in processing). This fortification put Wonder bread on the map again, as it was a “wonder” at curing these diseases!

What ancient grain options are out there?

amaranth grain in wooden bowl ancient grain

In the category of ancient grains, you will find several varieties of wheat as well as many other interesting and tasty grains.

Heirloom wheat varieties:

  • Higher density of protein and nutrients
  • Less gluten (may be less troublesome for people with gluten sensitivity)
  • Examples: Kamut® (also generically known as Khorasan and Pharaoh grain and said to be rediscovered in an ancient Egyptian tomb), emmer, einhorn, and spelt

Non-wheat ancient grains:

  • Many are now mainstream and are increasingly available as whole grains, processed into whole grain flours, and incorporated into prepared (not processed!) foods
  • Examples: quinoa (South America), amaranth (Central America), fonio (Africa), chia (Central America), teff (West Africa) and flax (North Africa)

The table below compares the nutritional composition of various grains (per 100 gram serving):

How do you prepare ancient grains?

Recipes for preparing all of these widely available, ranging from a simple side dish to a main dish (i.e. instead of rice/pasta in a hearty stew or soup). It’s important to use milled grains, which expose the contents of the kernel, as it’s easier on our digestive systems.

chia pudding brenda godinez unsplash

For an especially quick way to get more ancient grains in each day, try…

  • Adding a tablespoon or so of amaranth to your morning oatmeal. Or, stir it in with brown basmati rice to give an added nutrition boost.
  • Making chia “pudding”: chia’s high water absorption make it a fantastic “pudding” ingredient. Just craft a mixtures that’s half liquid (like almond milk) and half yogurt, mix in the seeds, and let it sit.
  • Tossing a couple tablespoons of chia, milled flax, or quinoa into a smoothie.
  • Tossing a tablespoon of one of these on a salad for some added “nuttiness”. Mixing it into your vinaigrette first will help it stay on your leaves instead of just falling to the bottom.

Have a favorite recipe using ancient grains? Please share it below for fellow readers to try!