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What’s the Deal with Ancient Grains?

When faced with a steaming bowl of soup (it’s French Onion Soup this week), my absolute favourite thing is to pop a chunk of bread in the oven, slice off a slab of butter (don’t judge), and pair the two together while I fantasize that I’m in some medieval tavern after a long day of journeying with my mule and cart.

“But wait!” cries a part of me that wants to make sure I can still be as healthy as possible while eating bread, “what is this bread made from? Are you sure you want that high-density, high-sugar kitke? Wouldn’t you rather have something healthy like an ancient grain bread?”

Ancient Grains: What are they?

Ancient grains include varieties of wheat: speltKhorasan wheat (Kamut), einkorn, and emmer; the grains milletbarleyteffoats, and sorghum; and the pseudocereals quinoaamaranthbuckwheat, and chia.

And so, we come to ancient grains.

I like to be open to new ideas and flavours, but when foods are billed as ‘healthier’ or ‘superfoods’ and make claims of miraculous medicinal properties, I start to get a little sceptical.

According to the New Yorker, ‘Ancient grains’ is actually a marketing term rather than an official classification or food group. In layman’s terms, ancient grains are billed as grains that have not been altered by selective breeding and agricultural practices to significantly alter what they look, feel, or taste like.

To put it into perspective, if you took a time machine and went back to the Agricultural Revolution, you’d notice that ancient wheat and modern-day wheat look wildly different. However, ancient millet may not look too different than its modern-day equivalent.

The thinking is along the lines of Paleo diets – these are grains at their most natural, and if we are a society that prizes green, organic, and all-natural foodstuffs, the foods we relied on before society even existed should be the best for us, right?

Not so fast. Just because corn, wheat, oats, and rice have been bred and cultivated for thousands of years doesn’t necessarily mean that the varieties we eat today are all bad. Quite the contrary, in fact. While we are all sceptical of huge food companies these days for factory farming and processed foods, for the vast majority of human history, agricultural experimentation was done for the good of the population, not for the good of shareholder profits. When farmers in Mesopotamia were messing around with strains of wheat, it was to figure out which strain was the most healthy, filling, and easy to grow rather than which one would make them the most money.

Ancient grains are well-known for their purported health benefits – and that’s not wrong. Yes, millet can improve your heart health. Yes, Kamut can reduce cholesterol. Yes, sorghum can add some delightful fibre and protein to your diet.

However, the idea that ancient grains are more healthy than regular wheat or oatmeal is incorrect. The Whole Grains Council (who I consider to be a much higher authority than me on this topic) has come out and said that regular, unrefined grain products are just as healthy as ancient grains.

So, the next time you see the choice between reasonably-priced brown rice and the more expensive pearl millet touting that it is an ‘ancient grain’, remember – it is first and foremost a marketing term.


Looking for a soup containing grains?  Try this vegan Quinoa, Chickpea and Chard soup recipe.

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Tayla Blaire

Tayla Blaire is a South African writer, teacher, epicurean, and (most importantly) mother to all cats. Tayla has been thinking (and subsequently writing) about food since she was a tiny tot after her mother taught her that measuring ingredients was for the weak. If you’re interested to see what Tayla has whipped up recently, check out her Instagram profile @tayla.blaire to see the recipes that she has lovingly filmed in her very own too-small kitchen.

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