Amazing Grains

The latest super seeds are giving quinoa some serious competition.

Have you noticed the trendy “New” grains at the market—kaniwa, farro, freekeh, spelt and teff? Actually, they have been around for a long, long time. In fact, these grains are positively ancient. But anything old is new again, and their nutritional benefits and versatility are worth a second look.


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Kaniwa comes from the Andes in Peru and has been a staple of local diets for generations, only recently discovered by Western palettes. Farro was mentioned in the Bible. It has been found in the tombs of Egyptian kings, is said to have fed the Roman Legions and was even used as a form of currency in ancient Rome. Freekeh was created thousands of years ago in the Fertile Crescent (where the Middle East meets the Mediterranean Sea), also known as the “Cradle of Civilization.” Spelt was so important to the Greeks that they gave it as an offering to their gods. And teff has been a staple of traditional Ethiopian cooking for more than 3,000 years.

Why the renewed interest in these ancient grains? For three simple reasons: ancient grains are claimed to be more nutritious and healthier than modern grains, they have not been genetically modified and many are gluten-free. Their rise in popularity is also due to research showing the health benefits of boosting the amount of whole grains you eat. Studies show that people who consume more whole grains may have a lower risk of many chronic diseases including heart disease and type two diabetes. According to the latest U.S. Dietary Guidelines, adults should eat about six servings of grains per day, half of which should be whole grains. Lastly, you now can find them in your local supermarket.

Just when you finally learned how to correctly pronounce quinoa (keen-wa), another new grain comes along with an odd sounding name touting its health benefits. Kaniwa (pronounced ka-nyi-wa) is the latest gluten-free super grain, not to be confused with its cousin quinoa. Although technically a seed, it is rich in protein, fiber, iron, calcium, zinc and antioxidants. In fact, it is a complete protein, boasting all nine essential amino acids and seven grams of protein per half-cup serving.

Kaniwa is easy to digest and has a similar sweet nutty flavor as quinoa, but it is half the size. Kaniwa can be cooked just as you would quinoa, but it does not need to be rinsed prior to cooking. Try kaniwa in place of oatmeal for breakfast, as a rice replacement, in soups, souffles, casseroles and baked goods.

A favorite grain of foodies and chefs, farro is high in fiber, iron and protein. It is hearty and chewy, with a rich, nutty flavor and easy to digest. These tasty ancient grains deliver about the same number of calories (roughly 100 per half-cup cooked) as more traditional grains. But when it comes to protein and fiber, farro delivers about 3.5 grams more protein and fiber than brown rice per half-cup serving. Farro is also rich in vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, niacin and zinc.

Some say farro is the original ancestor of all other wheat. Today this Old World heirloom grain is still highly regarded in Italy, where it has been grown for generations by Tuscan farmers and is featured in many traditional dishes, used in stews, casseroles, salads, pilafs, tabbouleh and couscous. Try your hand at “farrotto,” an alternative to traditional risotto.

Freekeh (pronounced free-kah) or farik (Arabic for “to rub”) was created when a crop of young green grain was set ablaze. In a salvage attempt, the farmers rubbed away the burnt chaff to discover the tender roasted kernels inside, and freekeh became a Middle Eastern staple. The grain on the inside is too young and moist to burn, so what remains is firm and chewy with an earthy, nutty and subtle smoky flavor.

When it comes to nutritional benefits, freekeh dominates most grains. Freekeh is low in fat and has more than three times as much fiber as brown rice and twice as much fiber as quinoa. This means it keeps you feeling full long after you’ve eaten it. Freekeh also ranks low on the glycemic index, making it a great choice for people managing diabetes or those trying to keep their blood sugar steady. This power-packed grain is high in iron, calcium and zinc, and acts like a prebiotic, promoting the growth of good bacteria in your digestive system. However, freekeh is wheat, so if you are gluten-free, it is not for you.

For everyone else, freekeh is easy to incorporate into your diet. It cooks up relatively quickly compared to many whole grains—in just 20 minutes. Use it anywhere you’d use whole grains. Substitute hot freekeh for oatmeal as a hearty hot cereal topped with milk, honey, nuts or fruit. Add cooked freekeh to salad, soups, pilafs, risottos and tabbouleh.

A distant cousin to wheat, spelt is more nutritious, providing a generous dose of protein, fiber, riboflavin (vitamin B2), iron, manganese and zinc. Spelt has a robust nutty flavor and chewy texture, and can be easier to digest than wheat. Because of its high water solubility, its vital nutrients are quickly absorbed into the body.

Originating in the Near East over 8,000 years ago, this heirloom grain later spread throughout Europe, becoming especially popular in Germany, where it was farmed throughout the Middle Ages. Spelt has never been hybridized, so it has retained many of its original characteristics from antiquity, including its complex flavor. Breads and pasta made from spelt are denser and slightly sweeter than those made from white flour. Spelt makes excellent pasta, cookies and other baked goods. However, it is not gluten-free.

Teff is a tiny whole grain the size of a poppy seed with a mild, nutty flavor. It is the smallest grain in the world (about 100 grains are the size of a kernel of wheat). The germ and bran, where the nutrients are concentrated, account for a larger volume of the seed compared to more familiar grains. It is a good source of fiber, protein, iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc. It has more calcium and vitamin C than almost any other grain. Much of its fiber is resistant starch, which has been linked in studies to health benefits, such as improved blood sugar, and it is gluten-free.

Teff is the most widely planted crop in Ethiopia. It has long been a dietary staple for Ethiopia’s legendary distance runners, who like the grain because it is naturally high in minerals. Mix up your menu with teff. Try it on its own or in stews, veggie burgers, or cakes, cookies and breads. It can be made into polenta, or a hot cereal with coconut oil.

Any one of these ancient grains may become the next “super grain,” kicking quinoa right out of the pot.

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