If the gluten-free craze has taught us anything, it's that not all grains can mimic the taste and texture of white flour. For decades, white flour has been the basis for the majority of our breads, pastas, pizza crusts, baked goods and breakfast cereals. Food manufacturers have simply been trying to give us what we're used to.
But if the popularity of quinoa has taught us anything, it's that Americans are ready to accept different grains in our diets even if they don't taste the same as white flour. Slowly, ancient grains — both with gluten and without — have made their way into our diets.
"Ancient grains" is a marketing term. There is no official definition. But all these grains have been around for hundreds of years or more.
So while these eight grains may seem new to you, they were probably familiar to your ancestors:
Amaranth is a gluten-free grain, and according to the Whole Grains Council, it's a "bit of an imposter." It's not a cereal grain like oats, wheat and sorghum because it belongs to a different plant species. It's associated with grains because it has a similar nutrient profile and has been used for thousands of years functioning like a grain in diets.
This pseudo-grain actually contains more protein than most other grains. Researchers have found that amaranth's protein "is among the highest in nutritive quality of vegetable origin and close to those of animal origin products." Studies have also shown that it can lower cholesterol.
Cooked amaranth stays a bit crunchy on the outside but softens on the inside. The starchy cooked grains can be cooked and thrown into soups to thicken them up a bit or baked into Amaranth Banana Walnut Bread.
Buckwheat is another pseudo-grain, a food with nutrition and uses like a grain but, technically, isn't one. It's a fruit seed that is related to rhubarb and sorrel, according to The World's Healthiest Foods, and is gluten free. It's a good source of manganese, copper, magnesium, fiber and phosphorous. Diets rich in buckwheat have shown to lower cholesterol and high blood pressure, control blood sugar and protect against heart disease.
Buckwheat can be used as a porridge, and when milled into a flour it makes a gluten-free option for pancakes and even for baked goods like Chocolate Hazelnut Cake.
Gluten-free sorghum is one of the reasons gluten-free beer is possible. The cereal grain is often boiled into a syrup, but when the whole berry is used or it's milled into flour, it becomes a wheat flour substitute. Much of the sorghum grown in the United States ends up as animal feed or a component in ethanol, but it's increasingly being used as a food in regions other than the South (which has been on to sorghum for decades, reports Huffington Post).
Sorghum can add vitamins like niacin, riboflavin and thiamin to a diet and also minerals like magnesium, iron, copper, calcium, phosphorous and potassium. A serving is high in protein and fiber, too. Like most of these grains, sorghum can be used as a porridge and the flour can be used in baked goods. It can even be used as popped sorghum, similar to popcorn.
Teff has been touted as the new supergrain, and runners in particular are gravitating to this poppy-seed-like grain that's high in protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc and vitamin B6. People are also reaching for this grain because it's gluten-free, easily digestible and has a low glycemic index.
Teff has been a staple in Ethiopia where it grows where other crops won't thrive. It cooks quickly and has the texture of poppy seeds. As flour, it's increasingly used as an ingredient in pancakes, snacks, breads and cereals, particularly in foods marketed as gluten-free, according to the Whole Grains Council.
This ancient grain is mainly cultivated in India, though it's also grown in Africa and China, reports Organic Facts. It's highly nutritious with a good dose of B vitamins, calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, magnesium, protein, fiber and healthy fats. Diets rich in millet help prevent against heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.
One thing to watch out for when eating millet is that it contains goitrogens, substances that can suppress thyroid activity and cause goiter, according to Health With Food. It should be eaten in moderation, in recipes like Savory Millet Cakes.
Spelt is a variety of wheat that was regularly used well into the early 1900s, but it became less popular as the wheat used for processed white flour became preferred. It's making a comeback because it's high in fiber and protein and contains significant levels of iron, copper, manganese, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc, selenium, niacin, vitamin B6 and folic acid, reports Organic Facts.
Because spelt is a type of wheat, it contains gluten. Nutty and slightly sweet, spelt flour can be substituted for whole wheat flour in recipes. Or, if you want to add some extra nutrition to a recipe that calls for white, all-purpose flour, substitute spelt for half of the white flour. Whatever you're baking will probably be a little denser, but it will cook correctly.
According to einkorn.com, einkorn is the oldest wheat known to man. The grain contains higher levels of protein, essential fatty acids, phosphorous, potassium, pyridoxine (B6), lutein and beta-carotene (lutein) than most of the wheat we consume.
In a water-to-grain ratio of 2:1, einkorn can be cooked much like rice and used as a side dish or added to salads. Milled einkorn flour can be used to make breads, pancakes and baked goods. Baking with einkorn requires less liquid than with modern flour, so follow recipes at first until you get used to to the ratios. Because einkorn is a wheat, it also contains gluten.
Khorasan wheat is usually referred to as Kamut, its commercial name. Whole Grains Council reports that in a test done at Careggi University Hospital in Florence, Italy, scientists found that the health impacts of eating bread, crackers, pasta and cookies made with Kamut were greater than those made with Durum wheat or soft wheat. When subjects ate all their wheat products made with Kamut for eight weeks, their total cholesterol decreased 4 percent and their LDL (bad) cholesterol decreased 7.8 percent. Inflammation dropped while levels of potassium and magnesium in the blood increased. When subjects were fed the same foods made with modern wheats, the results weren't nearly as positive.
Kamut contains gluten, but some say it's easier to digest than the gluten in modern wheat. Those with a slight intolerance to gluten may find some success with it, but conferring with a doctor is important before trying anything new. The whole berry can be cooked and used in recipes like Kamut Pilaf or it can be made into a flour and used the way other wheat flours are used.