Ancient grains

“Why would I want to eat old grains?”  You may ask.

Ancient grains are all the rage right now!  And for good reason.  They are a great way to add variety to your whole grain repertoire.

The term “ancient grains” generally refers to grains that have been around, unchanged for hundreds or thousands of years. This is in contrast to modern grains such as corn, wheat and rice that have been selectively bred and modified from their wild origins.

This is not to say that modern grains are bad!  Common whole grains, such as brown rice, whole grain pasta and whole grain bread are still part of a healthy eating plan.  But, with any packaged food, you have to carefully read labels to check for over-processing and unwanted additives. With grains, as with any food group, the best way to get the full spectrum of nutrients available is to eat a variety of different grain foods.

Many ancient grains have been popular in other parts of the world and are more recently being introduced to the United States. Examples of ancient grains are: amaranth, barley, buckwheat, farro, freekah, kamut, millet, quinoa, sorghum, spelt and teff.

These ancient grains are all whole grains.  This means that they contain all of the original bran, germ, and endosperm.

In contrast, refined grains have had their bran and germ removed by milling.

Whole grains are better sources of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.  This means that they are better for: helping control blood sugar, helping you feel full and helping you stay healthy!

Another great thing about many of the ancient grains is that they can be enjoyed in a more natural form than the processed grains that we have become accustomed to.  Many of them are also farmed organically and/or in more eco-friendly ways than modern wheat crops, leaving less of a carbon footprint.  

Most ancient grains have a satisfying, chewy texture and delicious nutty flavor.  They can make a great substitute for rice or you can experiment with countless other flavorful new recipes.  See the table below to learn everything you ever wanted to know about ancient grains – with links to more information and recipes.

We all know that brown rice has more fiber than white rice.  

White Rice Brown Rice
Cal: 66

Pro: 1.4g

Fiber: 0.4g

Cal: 73

Pro: 1.5

Fiber: 1.2

How do Ancient grains compare, you ask?  Check this out!

Grain Name and Nutrition information (per ⅓ cup, cooked)


Cal: 84Pro: 3.1 gFiber: 1.7 


Amaranth is technically more of a seed than a true cereal grain.  Amaranth is very popular in Central and South America, where it is often popped, like popcorn.  Amaranth has a slightly nutty, earthy taste.  It can even have a somewhat peppery taste.  It can be used to make porridge or pilaf; it can also be added to salads, soups, breads, muffins and pancakes. Amaranth is a very high-quality source of plant protein.  It is actually a complete protein – meaning that it includes all of the essential amino acids. Amaranth is also high in calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus.  Amaranth is completely gluten-free and easy to digest.  


For more amaranth information and recipes, visit:



Cal: 64
Pro: 1.2
Fiber: 2.0




Barley is among the world’s oldest cultivated grains, dating back to the Ancient Egyptians.  Barley is considered a cereal grain.  Barley has a mild, nut-like flavor and a chewy consistency.  Most of the barley you will find in the store is pearled or pearl barley.  The pearling process means that the inedible outer hull has been scraped off of the barley.  Unfortunately, this means that most of the bran layer has also been removed.

If you can find “hulled barley” or “hulless barley,” try those – as they will contain even more fiber and nutrients.

The good news is, that pearled barley is still a good source of fiber because there is fiber throughout the kernel – not just in the bran layer (like most other grains).  Also, all barley will give you the benefits of  beta-glucan soluble fiber that helps control blood sugar levels and lower LDL cholesterol.  Barley is high in vitamins and minerals – including potassium, B vitamins, vitamin E and zinc.  Barley also contains selenium, which is a powerful antioxidant. Barley is delicious in soups or stews, or can be used to make a pilaf.


For more on the health benefits of barley, visit:

Hearty Barley recipes:


Cal: 52Pro: 1.9gFiber: 1.5g 
Buckwheat has been around for about 8,000 years and was originally cultivated in the Balkan region of Europe.  It has since become popular in many parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East.  Buckwheat groats are shaped like a triangle or pyramid.  Buckwheat is gluten free and has nutty flavor.

Buckwheat contains higher levels of copper, manganese and zinc than other cereal grains.  Buckwheat can make a delicious addition to soups or salads, or is good in a pilaf.  If you’re in the mood for noodles, try  Japanese soba noodles.  They are a combination of buckwheat flour and wheat flour.


For more buckwheat information and recipes, visit: 
Farro (Emmer)
Cal: 133Pro: 4.7gFiber: 4.7g 
Farro is an ancient variety of wheat, and it was a staple in ancient Rome.  Farro is still very popular in Italy.  Farro has a roasted, nutty flavor and a hearty, chewy texture.  Farro is high in protein and fiber.  It is also rich in B vitamins, iron, magnesium and zinc.

You can enjoy it as a risotto dish or as part of a salad, substitute it for rice, or add it to a hearty stew or soup.   


Check out these websites for more farro information and recipes:


Cal: 76Pro: 3.1Fiber: 3.6 



Freekah dates back thousands of years to ancient Egypt and is found mostly in North African and Middle Eastern cuisine.

Freekah is a type of wheat that has been harvested when it is still green and young.  It is usually sold toasted and cracked.  Its flavor is a combination of nutty, grassy and slightly smoky.  And it has a chewy texture. Freekah is high in protein, fiber and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin.  It is also a good source of minerals, including: potassium, selenium and magnesium. Freekah makes a great side dish – substitute it for rice, use it to make a pilaf or risotto or put it in a savory salad. You can even make a hearty hot cereal with it.


For more information on the health benefits of freekah, check out:



Khorasan Wheat (aka Kamut)

Cal: 76
Pro: 3.3
Fiber: 2.5

An Egyptian word for wheat, Kamut is another ancient wheat variety. Kamut is actually the brand name for Khorasan Wheat. This grain also has the nicknames “Camel’s tooth” – due to its shape, or “Prophet’s Wheat,” because of legend that it was the grain that Noah brought with him on the ark. Kamut has a sweet, nutty, buttery flavor and comes in golden, chewy kernels.  It contains high levels of protein, fiber, manganese, selenium and zinc. Kamut is a delicious addition to salads, pilafs and soups.



For more Kamut information and recipes, visit:


Cal: 69Pro: 2.0Fiber: 2.5
Millet was first farmed about 10,000 years ago in the far East.  Today, India, Africa and China are the main producers of millet.  In the United States, you are most likely to see millet in bird seed.  But, that is starting to change – as people discover the health benefits and mild, slightly sweet flavor of this tiny grain.  Millet is a gluten-free whole grain, and it comes in white, yellow, red and gray varieties. Millet is rich in copper, magnesium, manganese and phosphorus. It’s great for whole grain salads, pilafs or stir fries. For breakfast, you can make a creamy, hot cereal with millet.


For more millet information and recipes, visit: 
Cal: 74Pro: 2.7gFiber: 1.7g 



Quinoa was considered a sacred crop by the ancient Incas.  Like many of the other ancient grains, quinoa was once obscure in the United States.  But now, it is probably the most popular grain on this list and you can easily find it in many supermarkets and restaurants.  While quinoa is actually an edible seed, it is used in cooking like a whole grain. It is a small grain with a mildly nutty taste and it comes in a variety of colors, including: ivory, red and black varieties.  

Quinoa is a good source of iron, folate, magnesium and zinc.

Quinoa is delicious in pilafs, salads, soups and stir fries.


For more quinoa information and recipes, visit: 

Cal: 96
Pro: 2.7g
Fiber: 4.3g


Sorghum is a gluten-free cereal grain, used for thousands of years in Africa.

It has a hearty texture and mild, sometimes sweet flavor. Sorghum is another great source of protein and fiber.

It can be popped like popcorn or used in pilafs, salads, or anywhere else whole grains are called for.


For more sorghum information and recipes, visit: 
Cal: 180
Pro: 4.1g
Fiber: 3.0g 



Commonly eaten in Europe in medieval times, spelt is part of the wheat family and is high in protein and fiber.

Spelt has a chewy texture and complex sweet, nutlike flavor.

Spelt is not gluten free, but is is low in gluten and can be more easily digested than other types of wheat by people with wheat intolerances. Spelt is high in B vitamins, copper, manganese and iron.

Spelt can be used in place of rice, in soups or salads or eaten as a hot cereal.


For more information on spelt, visit:


¼ c uncookedCal: 180Pro: 7gFiber: 4g
⅓ c cooked
Cal: 80
Pro: 3.1g
Fiber: 1.8g
Teff is tiny!  In fact, it may be the smallest grain in the world.  Teff is about the size of a poppy seed and it has a mild, nutty flavor.  Teff has been used in traditional Ethiopian recipes for thousands of years.

Teff is gluten free, and it is very high in calcium and protein.  It is also a good source of fiber, iron, manganese, magnesium, thiamine and zinc.

You can try teff in a hot cereal or stew or add it to baked goods.

You can also mix teff with cooked veggies or sprinkle it on a salad.


For more teff information and recipes, visit:



USDA National Nutrient Database:



Jen Kim, RDN

About Jen Kim, RDN

Jennifer is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). She completed her Bachelor's of Science degree at the University of Illinois, and holds a Master's Degree in Business Administration (MBA) from San Diego State University. Jennifer also has a Certification in Adult Weight Management. She has worked in hospitals as a Clinical Dietitian, done obesity research and worked as a Corporate Dietitian for a national weight loss company. Jennifer is passionate about helping people live healthier lives. She believes in a balanced approach to nutrition - where all foods can fit - centered around a natural, plant-based diet. Jen lives in San Diego with her husband and two boys - where she enjoys playing soccer and tennis, hiking, playing on the beach, playing board games and shooting pool.

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