What Exactly Are ‘Ancient Grains’—and Why Are They So Good For You?

These types of grains are considered “ancient grains”—here’s what that means, their health benefits, and how to eat more of them.

Have you heard the buzz about ancient grains? These kinds of grains are steeped in history and have been gaining in popularity as incredible sources of nutrition and come with some added sustainability perks, too. But what actually qualifies as an ancient grain, and what makes these healthy carbs so nutritious compared to other types of grains? Here’s everything you need to know.

What Are Ancient Grains?

While there’s no official definition of ancient grains, many will categorize them as grains with indigenous origins grown using the same techniques for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Some use the terms “ancient” and “heirloom” grains synonymously, while others believe that there’s a distinct difference between the two—with heirloom or heritage grains being those brought to the West by immigrants (versus those grown indigenously in the West and Americas). Given those definitions, some ancient grains will, of course, also be heirloom or heritage grains. 

A general rule of thumb to understand what sets ancient grains apart from their conventionally raised counterparts (like modern wheat) seen around every corner in our food supply is that ancient grains are never, and have never, been modified in any way. So you’ll never find a GMO ancient grain (thank goodness). 

Common Ancient Grains to Know—and Their Top Health Benefits

While there are dozens of varieties of ancient grains, we’ll highlight some of the most common ones (plus a few unique choices) and the nutrition facts associated with each. You’ll see many through lines between the nutrition profiles of these grains, and they all contain many different types of plant compounds, or phytochemicals. These bioactive compounds are antioxidants with potent anti-inflammatory benefits that can help to ward off chronic disease. And then each grain also comes with its own unique benefits to love.

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Though technically not a grain, chia seed is often included as an ancient grain as it meets all the other criteria. You might already know just how much nutrition is packed into these tiny seed packages, since they’re especially popular these days. Chia seeds are especially high in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, protein, calcium, and zinc. These nutrients combine to help our cholesterol levels stay within normal limits, provide us with lasting energy throughout the day, build strong bones, and boost our immune systems.

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This ancient grain is one that is slowly leaving its niche shadow behind and becoming more mainstream. Naturally gluten-free, amaranth is full of protein and fiber and also boasts impressive levels of manganese, iron, and magnesium. Iron is key to healthy blood cell formation while magnesium supports healthy sleep, digestion, and muscle and nerve function. Manganese is a mineral that is linked to strong bones as well as blood and hormone formation.

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Similar to chia, quinoa is also technically a seed. It’s often referred to as a pseudo-grain because this gluten-free option is prepared using the same methods as rice and other grains. Quinoa is one of the few plant-based complete protein sources, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids necessary to build strong muscle and tissue throughout the body. It’s also full of manganese and magnesium, alongside phosphorus, folate, and zinc. Phosphorus is a key player in healthy bone formation while folate helps to build healthy cells and is vital for neural tube development in growing babies in utero. Meanwhile, zinc is a well-known mineral due to its ability to boost our immune systems.

Here's a full breakdown of quinoa's many nutritious benefits.

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Another gluten-free option, millet is not just for bird seed anymore—it’s actually delicious and nutritious for humans as well! Again, you’ll find lots of magnesium and manganese in this grain, but it also provides notable amounts of thiamin, which aids in energy metabolism throughout the body. Research has also shown that millet can help regulate blood sugars, especially in those with metabolic concerns like type 2 diabetes.

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While it’s not as popular in the United States (yet!), sorghum is actually one of the most consumed grains worldwide. It’s high in protein, magnesium and manganese, and also provides copper and selenium. Copper helps us absorb iron and is vital for energy metabolism in the body, while selenium supports thyroid and immune function.

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A more common ingredient in soups and grain bowls, due to its natural chew and nutty flavor, barley is actually not gluten-free, as some might assume (that’s not a bad thing for most people not sensitive to gluten, but important to note for anyone with a gluten allergy or intolerance). This grain is full of beta glucan, a fiber that helps to improve cholesterol levels, and also offers iron and selenium.

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Kamut (Khorasan Wheat)

Kamut is a kind of wheat often referenced in the conversation about ancient grains. Kamut offers all the health benefits of whole wheat, and then some: loaded with fiber, zinc, niacin, and 100 percent of your daily selenium needs in just one cup (cooked). Niacin is super beneficial to digestive, skin, and nervous system health.

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Bulgur is another variety of ancient wheat that’s not only a perfect grain salad base, but also packed to the brim with nutrients. With fiber, magnesium, manganese, and copper, this grain will keep your heart, immune, and digestive health on point. It's no surprise RDs are pointing to this grain as an up-and-coming superfood to watch out for.

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Staying on the wheat train here, farro is another type of wheat (containing gluten) that looks similar to bulgur and lends itself nicely to many of the same dishes due to its equally nutty, delicious flavor. In this tasty grain you’ll find lots of fiber, zinc, niacin, and magnesium to support your best health.

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A lesser-known grain to most, teff is a gluten-free ancient grain with origins in Ethiopia and Eritrea, where it remains a staple food to this day. And it’s no wonder it’s such a cornerstone in the diet of these countries as in only 100 grams of uncooked teff you’ll find over 400 percent of your daily manganese needs, nearly 100 percent of your daily vitamin C and copper needs, plus tons of fiber magnesium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc. This unique combination of nutrients lends itself to supporting nearly every body system.

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Wild Rice

To many midwesterners, this history-rich grain is a staple in the classic recipe chicken and wild rice soup—a creamy broth paired with chicken, veggies, and the satisfyingly chewy texture of wild rice. Naturally gluten-free and higher in protein than white and brown rice, wild rice also offers fiber, zinc, manganese, and phosphorus.

Ancient Grains Are More Sustainable Grains

As if the nutrition of these grains weren’t alluring enough, ancient grains also offer so many sustainability benefits. To give you a bit of context, modification of grains in the U.S. began during the Green Revolution in the mid 20th century. During this time, farmers started to selectively breed grains with shorter stature to encourage more seed or harvestable grain production. With these modifications, the root structure and density of these plants decreased to the same degree. This combination of less root structure and plant matter above ground yielded less organic (or living) matter that could reenter the soil after harvesting. This, in part, started the soil health crisis we face today as organic matter is key to soil’s productivity and capability to store carbon in the ground.

Given that ancient grains have not been adulterated in this way, they have maintained deep root systems and taller plant structures above ground. This enables them to reintroduce more organic matter into the soil, leading to improved soil health and ability to sequester carbon. This is so important because soil is one of the greatest carbon sinks on our beautiful planet. 

Plus, these deep root systems help ancient grains to be more drought-resistant, as they can reach deeper water sources in the ground. Certain varieties will be more drought resistant than others—teff, for example, is a particularly drought-tolerant ancient grain.

Easy Ways to Eat More Ancient Grains

Because of their impressive health and sustainability benefits, these grains are becoming increasingly trendy, landing them on more grocery store shelves, superfood lists, and meal plates across the country. You’ll find at least one, if not several, varieties of ancient grains at nearly every market these days.

Once you’re ready to cook, there’s so many delicious ways to use ancient grains. Some tasty options include adding them to soups or salads, using them as a base for hearty grain bowls, serving them up as a side dish with herbs and aromatics, or even using the flour of these unique grains in whatever baked good your heart desires.

Some of favorite recipes starring ancient grains include:

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  1. Kam J, Puranik S, Yadav R, et al. Dietary interventions for type 2 diabetes: how millet comes to help. Front Plant Sci. 2016;7:1454. doi:10.3389/fpls.2016.01454

  2. Maunder AB. Sorghum Worldwide. In: Leslie JF, ed. Sorghum and Millets Diseases. John Wiley & Sons. 2008;11-17.

  3. USDA FoodData Central. Wheat, KAMUT khorasan, cooked. Accessed April 19, 2023.

  4. USDA FoodData Central. Teff, uncooked. Accessed April 19, 2023.

  5. Habte E, Muktar MS, Negawo AT, Lee S-H, Lee K-W, Jones CS. An overview of Teff (Eragrostis teff zuccagni) Trotter) as a potential summer forage crop in temperate systems. Journal of the Korean Society of Grassland and Forage Science. 2019;39(3):185-188. doi:10.5333/KGFS.2019.39.3.185

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