Ancient Grains for Modern Health

“Ancient grains” are whole grains that have been around for centuries. They are generally a better source of nutrients than modern grains because they have been left virtually intact over the years, whereas modern grains are continually hybridized to produce higher yielding, more manageable crops.  The root systems of these modern crops, which are engineered to grow larger and faster, are unable to draw up all the vitamins and minerals from the soil, so their nutrient content ultimately becomes diluted.

Also, the grains listed below are all gluten-free, so they are great options for gluten-intolerant individuals.

What is a whole grain?

A whole grain MUST have the following 3 components:

Bran – the outer covering of the grain kernel which has B vitamins, fiber, and protein
Endosperm – the starchy center which provides energy and makes up most of the kernel
Germ – the innermost part of the kernel which has vitamins E and K, oils, minerals, and protein

Usually, processing removes the bran and germ, leaving only endosperm. This results in a loss of about 25% of the protein and MANY key nutrients!


Keep whole grains frozen or refrigerated to extend their shelf life.  Grains should also be tightly sealed, as they can pick up aromas from other foods.

The Ancient Whole Grains


Not truly a cereal grain (called a pseudo-grain), amaranth was a staple of the Aztecs. This grain, like all of the ancient grains, tolerates poor growing conditions. (The ability of these grains to grow in extreme climates has allowed them to last throughout the years.)

Taste the Benefits: Amaranth has a slightly nutty flavor with mild corn notes. It also has an impressive nutritional profile, including high-quality protein, fiber, and minerals (iron, copper, magnesium, and calcium).

Cooking Tips: Try popping amaranth in a hot pan and mixing it with cereal, tossing it in salads, or adding it to yogurt.


This ancient grain, domesticated over 4000 years ago, is a staple in India and is common in Africa. It is readily available in the US and is often used in animal feed, such as bird seed.

Taste the Benefits: Millet is high in B vitamins, which help us extract energy from the foods we eat. It is also a good source of vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects against free radicals that contribute to aging and tissue damage. (Free radicals are produced when our bodies break food down and are also generated by tobacco smoke and the sun.)  Millet is low on the glycemic index and promotes a slow rise in blood sugar, which is important for people monitoring their blood sugar, such as those with diabetes.

Cooking Tip: Try popping millet it in a hot pan, like amaranth, or adding it to soups or casseroles.


Another pseudo-grain, quinoa was a staple in the Incan diet.  Quinoa is a relative of Swiss chard, beets, and spinach.

Taste the Benefits: It has an earthy, slightly nutty taste. It is a complete protein food, which means it contains all the essential amino acids our bodies need. This is important because we cannot make essential amino acids: they must come from our diets. (Grains are generally considered incomplete proteins because they are low in lysine, so using quinoa in place of grains such as rice, corn, or wheat will provide better quality protein.)

Cooking Tip: Try substituting quinoa for rice in side dishes or soups.  You can also try this five grain recipe featuring a few of the grains mentioned above, including quinoa.


This grain originates from Ethiopia and Egypt. It has a fairly neutral flavor and is one of the less expensive ancient grains.

Taste the Benefits: It is commonly used in gluten-free flour blends, usually up to 25% of the total flour ratio. These blends can be used in bread, pancake, muffin, cookie, and pizza dough recipes. Sorghum is rich in phytochemicals (healthy plant chemicals), B vitamins, and minerals such as copper, manganese, iron, and zinc.

Cooking Tip: Try using sorghum flour in bread, pancake, muffin, cookie, and pizza dough recipes.  Try this sorghum pancake recipe or this molasses cookie recipe.


This grain is the least prevalent in the United States due to cost and availability. Teff originated from Ethiopia and India and can be found in Ethiopian restaurants where it is used to make injera bread, a spongy, slightly sour flatbread that is served with stews.

Taste the Benefits: It has a light sweet flavor with molasses notes.  It is a great source of manganese, a mineral that plays an important role in antioxidant function, metabolism, and bone health.

Cooking Tip: Use teff in soups, stews, pancakes, and cookies.

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Our Be Fit Nutritionists are comprised of dietetic interns studying at Massachusetts General Hospital. During their internship, they receive training on acute care nutrition, ambulatory and community nutrition, food service systems management, and research. Their comprehensive work is done in collaboration with registered dietitians.

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