Post Categories: November 2014

Trending Tastes—Ancient Grains: Carbs with Bonus Benefits

Quinoa, chia, amaranth, millet, spelt, teff—if some of these words are new to you, you’re not alone. They’re just a few of the new “it” grains starting to pop up on restaurant menus and in the pasta and rice aisle. But what exactly are these grains and why are they becoming so popular? As it turns out, they’re not truly new at all. Rather, they are the plants and seeds that fed civilizations for thousands of years before the advent of modern wheat, a plant that turned out to be easier to grow in large quantities. Many of these “ancient grains” can be used just like wheat and rice—to make cereals, side dishes, baked goods and more. But where they outshine wheat—and are grabbing the attention of many consumers—is in their nutritional content.

Most ancient grains are higher in protein than wheat or rice. For example, most wheat flours contain about 10 percent protein, whereas amaranth and teff flour both have about 14 percent protein. On a cup-per-cup basis, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) and spelt both beat out rice by a good margin. Quinoa offers 8 grams of protein per cup and spelt packs an impressive 11 grams, compared to brown rice’s 5. More protein helps ancient grains satisfy hunger better than refined grains and promotes healthy muscles, benefits that appeal to the more than 50 percent of Americans who say they are actively looking to increase the protein in their diet, according to a recent study by consumer research firm NPD Group.

In addition, ancient grains are usually consumed as whole grains, increasing their fiber content as compared to refined grains such as traditional pasta, white bread and white rice. This helps aid in digestion and reduces the impact the grains have on blood sugar. Ancient grains also generally retain more of their nutritional content—boasting higher amounts of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. For example, teff (popular in Ethiopian cuisine) is nearly as high in calcium as spinach, and chia seeds (a staple in many natural granola mixes) contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Not only are ancient grains growing in popularity thanks to the bonus nutrients they contain, they are also being sought after for what many of them don’t contain. Quinoa, chia, amaranth, millet, sorghum, buckwheat and teff are all gluten-free, providing CPGs with a wealth of potential ingredients for gluten-free crackers, pastas, baked goods and other products—now an over $10 billion market, according to research firm Mintel.

With their various benefits over more traditional and refined grains, ancient grains have managed to begin making their way into numerous categories over the last few years—from cereals and pastas to beverages and baby food. The National Confectioner’s Association reports they’re even starting to appear in sweets and snacks, including chocolate bars and puddings. All in all, ancient grains seem to offer a little something for everyone—a way to have your healthy foods, and actually want to eat them, too.