Although humans have been eating grains for centuries, the modern grains we consume today are not the same as those eaten by our ancestors. Many of the grain-based products that have become a part of our daily diets, like bread and cereal, have been processed or modified, which can remove some of their most nutritious parts.
As an alternative to the refined grains we eat every day, many are opting for “ancient grains.” From quinoa to barley, these whole and unrefined grains, also known as “heritage grains,” are classified by the fact that they have been largely unchanged over the last several hundred years. We’ve partnered with Panera to explore why these superfoods from the past are becoming the grains of the future.
“When we look at traditional diets several hundred years ago, we find that whole grains play the role of a staple in almost every culture around the world,” explained Caroline Sluyter, the program director at Whole Grains Council. “For instance, millet was the main staple grain of Asia before rice. There is archaeological evidence that millet was being cultivated in northern China 7,500 years ago.”
Like millet, numerous grains such as sorghum, fonio, barley and spelt have been around for thousands of years. Still, they haven’t always been staples in Western diets. In places like the U.S., modern grains like wheat, corn and rice have been more popular choices. Beginning in the 20th century, grains were being processed through hybridization, which has the potential to reduce their health benefits.
“Ancient grains have been around with minimal processing for years, so they really haven’t changed much from when they were first discovered,” said Amy Shapiro, a nutritionist at Real Nutrition. “Recently, people got bored [eating] the same old grains, so to diversify their plate and to make sure they were getting lots of nutrients and fiber, [they added] ancient grains.”
The nutrient-packed ancient grains, which can contain protein, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, have been associated with numerous health benefits.
“Each whole grain has something diﬀerent to oﬀer (from the calcium in teﬀ, to the soluble ﬁber in barley), making it impossible to play favorites,” explained Sluyter. “While ancient grains are not necessarily any better for you than other whole grains, whole grain variety is something that most people could benefit from nutritionally, to make sure all of their needs are being met. And whole grains don’t need to be exotic to be good for you.”
As people have become increasingly conscious of what they are putting in their bodies, the popularity of ancient grains has grown. According to the National Restaurant Association’s Culinary Forecast, ancient grains are a growing trend among U.S. chefs, ranking at 20 out of over 100 trends for 2018.
“There are many ways to incorporate ancient grains into your diet, but one of the most popular ways is through grain bowls,” said Lisa Moskovitz, a registered dietitian. “In other words, layering the cooked grain such as quinoa, teff or farro, with a variety of cooked or raw veggies and lean protein with some avocado. You can also add them to soups or eat them with your eggs in the morning.”
As many have already discovered, the taste and versatility of these grains make them an easy addition to any meal — so these grains from the past will likely have a place on our plates in the future.
Panera Bread bakes its bread using select ingredients like whole wheat flour, sprouted spelt, sprouted rye, amaranth, oats and more. To see how others are improving the way we eat, check out Food Interrupted, a six-part series by Panera that sheds light on these hardworking chefs, tastemakers and community heroes who are helping to change America’s food system.