Ancient vs modern grains

Perhaps it’s the interest in looking, feeling and living younger, we have gone backwards in time when it comes to food choices too. No, I’m not talking about the food staples of the 80s, but far earlier than this. Ancient times! Ancient grains!

What is the difference between an ancient and a modern grain?

The word ‘ancient’ is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “belonging to the very distant past and no longer in existence”, so the literal interpretation isn’t being used when our modern society uses it in relation to grains. (Modern: “adj. Relating to the present or recent times as opposed to the remote past.")

The term ‘ancient grains’ refers to grains which have existed over the last several hundred years, without changing in a big way… and those which have more recently become popular choices again. These refer to the likes of quinoa, chia, amaranth, millet, wild rice, teff and more ‘ancient’ forms of wheat like spelt and farro (AKA emmer). They have not changed too much over time like the common modern grain has. 

Modern grains have been seen to have been bred for rapid growth, improved milling ability and have been processed through hybridisation or genetic modification, and have therefore changed over the years. Examples include wheat, corn and rice.

That’s not to say that human’s ability to modify naturally occurring foods is necessarily a bad thing. So aside from the rustic, retro romance ancient grains might have over their modern counterparts, let’s take a look at the nutrition and palatable side of things.

If you have ever had a go at eating some of the ancient grains, you might have noticed that they can tend to have a bit more crunch, density, and sometimes a little nutty flavour infusion. Some might even fill you up a little quicker than the modern varieties.

What we do know is that “whole grains” are an important part of our diet – they help to provide us quality fibre, protein, nutrients and energy for a healthy gut and heart, and they fuel our daily lives. “Whole grains” mean that the entire grain seed is present without any of its parts having been removed. Milled or refined grains (think white bread, white rice, white pasta) have been through processing to make the texture lighter, and therefore removing a whole bunch of that nutritious fibre. So let’s look at some of those ancient options which might provide some extra nutrition.
Quinoa salad
You’ve likely heard a bit about quinoa (yes, it’s pronounced “keen-wah”) – it’s actually a complete protein, meaning that it offers us all the building blocks our bodies require and half of which we can’t produce ourselves. Those building blocks are known as ‘amino acids’ and quinoa has all nine of them! Because it’s a great source of protein it means it will fill you up more than some of the other grains you might enjoy. Some grains like quinoa are called grains because of the way you cook it, even though it’s not a purist’s interpretation of a grain.

Chia is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids which are beneficial for our heart health. Aside from offering up a welcome change to the texture of all sorts of meals, it’s also supporting our cardiovascular health.

Barley actually contains 80 per cent more fibre than brown rice! In addition to this, it offers us beta-glucan which can also help in the heart department, helping to lower cholesterol.

Black rice and millet provide us with antioxidants and a good source of fibre alongside a bit more of a crunchy texture.

And teff has double the protein and fibre of what modern brown rice will offer us.

Now this seems like a pretty convincing way to encourage us to get into the ancient stuff and ditch the modern foods we have so readily available to us, but keep in mind that while some of these ancient grains are more nutritious, many also come with extra energy (kilojoules or calories). So if you’re wanting to maintain weight or are actively trying to lose weight, modify portions as to suit you. And the last thing to remember is that ancient grains are more expensive than the modern type… it could be argued that you’re just getting a more dense, nutritional option, so because you need less it ends up being closer in price and similar bang for your buck!

Assessment overall: the best outcome would be to incorporate a mixture of both ancient and modern grains into your diet. You’ll get a broader variety of nutrition into your body, as well as a great variety in texture, flavour and recipe options too! If you haven’t tried any ancient grains before, enjoy experimenting and see if you feel more youthful as a result!
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