Ancient Grains for Modern Palates: Gluten-Free and Eco-Friendly Grains Gain Favor

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by Judith Fertig

Ancient grains are making a comeback. Grown since Neolithic times about 10,000 years ago, varieties of barley, corn, millet and rice have helped assuage the hunger of many communities. Today, yellow millet, dark red wholegrain sorghum, brown quinoa and exotic black rice can help alleviate food shortages.

According to Harry Balzer, an expert surveyor of food and diet trends with The NPD Group, concerns about grains and gluten have prompted about a third of Americans to try to cut back on both since 2012. About 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, estimates the Celiac Disease Foundation, but many more prefer not to eat gluten. Many ancient grains are naturally glutenfree, including amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, rice and teff.

“Some think that a grain-free way of eating is healthier and also better for the planet,” says food writer Maria Speck, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals and Simply Ancient Grains. “But that may be too simplistic, a characteristic of many diet trends.”

Better for Our Health

Whole grains fill us up and provide fiber, both necessary for maintaining optimum digestion and weight, says Kathleen Barnes, a widely published natural health expert in Brevard, North Carolina.

Eating more whole grains has been previously associated with a lower risk of major diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, based on studies by the University of Minnesota and Lund University, in Sweden. Qi Sun, assistant professor in the Harvard School of Public Health department of nutrition, agrees that whole grains are one of the major healthful foods for prevention of major chronic diseases. He’s the lead author of a new Harvard study of data associating consumption of whole grains with a 9 percent reduction in overall mortality and up to 15 percent fewer cardiovascular fatalities during two 25-year-long research initiatives that followed 74,000 woman and 43,000 men. The researchers cited substituting whole grains for refined grains and red meat as likely contributors to longer life.

“Whole grains are nutritional powerhouses, packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, beneficial fiber and even some protein,” says Speck. With a German father and a Greek mother, she grew up in two cultures where grains are a part of everyday meals. “We eat them because they taste good.”

Better for Local Farmers

Sourcing and eating more organic and GMO-free whole grains (absent modified genetics) can help support local farmers, Speck maintains. Choose barley from Four Star Farms, in Massachusetts; heirloom grits from Anson Mills, in South Carolina; quinoa from White Mountain Farm, in Colorado; or heirloom Japanese rice from Koda Farms, in California.

Better for the Planet

Ancient grains require fewer natural resources to plant, grow and harvest. According to the Water Footprint Network, a pound of beef, millet and rice require 1,851, 568 and 300 gallons of water, respectively, to produce.

Substituting grains in diets is a sustainable alternative to meat, and they grow on grasslands that now inefficiently support livestock. According to University of Cambridge Professor of Engineering David MacKay, it takes about 25 times more energy to produce one calorie of beef than one calorie of natural grain.

Ancient grains can add variety and flavor to meals and a wealth of them are as close as the gluten-free aisle of a neighborhood grocery or health food store.

Judith Fertig blogs at AlfrescoFoodAndLifestyle.blogspot.com from Overland Park, Kansas


Favorite Ancient Grains

by Maria Speck
 

It’s best to cook up a batch of ancient grains ahead on the weekend for use during a busy week. To inject more color and flavor, add a pinch of saffron to turn the cooking water golden, or cook the grains in pomegranate juice. Cooked grain keeps in the refrigerator for up to seven days, ready to enhance salads, soups, yogurt or desserts.

Amaranth. The seed head of pigweed, amaranth can be baked into a custard or added to a soup. Grown by the Aztecs, iron- and protein-rich amaranth can be popped raw in a skillet like popcorn, and then added as garnish to soups and salads.

Buckwheat. The seeds of a plant related to rhubarb and grown in northern climates, buckwheat can be ground into flour for savory French crepes or simmered whole in soup.

Quinoa. Grown at high altitudes, quinoa has become a popular addition to salads or yogurt, as well as its own side dish.

Millet. A tiny, drought-tolerant grain, millet can be added to bread dough for texture or cooked as a healthy breakfast with toasted almonds and cardamom.

Teff. From Ethiopia, the flour of this tiny grain is fermented and used to make the flatbread known as injera. Try a teff waffle with caramelized pineapple.

Source: Adapted from Simply Ancient Grains by Maria Speck.

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