While the term may be new to you, ancient grains have been eaten for thousands of years in countries like China, Africa, India, and the Middle East.  In recent years, they are becoming more popular in America as well.

What are ancient grains?

As defined by the Whole Grains Council, ancient grains are “grains that are largely unchanged over the last several hundred years.”  Over the years, some varieties of grain, especially wheat, rice, and corn, have been altered through biotechnological advances such as mutation, selective cropping, breeding, and genetic modification.  Ancient grains however, are grown just like they were thousands of years ago.

Examples of ancient grains include:

  • farro
  • sorghum
  • teff
  • millet
  • quinoa
  • amaranth
  • spelt
  • Khorasan wheat

What are whole grains?

All ancient grains are whole grains, which means they are unrefined and the whole grain is fully intact. The three parts of a whole grain are the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.

  • The bran is the outer layer of the kernel and is filled with fiber, B vitamins, and minerals, such as iron, copper, zinc, magnesium.
  • The germ is the nutrient-rich core of the seed and is filled with healthy fats, vitamin E, and B vitamins as well.  Both the bran and the germ contain phytochemicals and antioxidants, which are both compounds that promote health.
  • The endosperm is the largest part of the kernel; it houses the starch (a type of carbohydrate), protein, and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

What are refined grains?

When a grain is “refined,” the bran and germ are stripped, leaving only the endosperm.  When the bran and germ are removed, the fiber, phytochemicals, antioxidants, and several vitamins and minerals are removed with it, resulting in a less healthy grain.

Refining a grain removes half to two-thirds of the nutrients.  Some of the nutrients are then added back into the grain in a process called enrichment, but this does not replace all the nutrients that were already removed.  Because of this, it is always advantageous to consume whole grains, rather than refined grains which are missing the bran, germ, and important nutrients for overall health.

Nutrition guidelines

Based on the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the recommendation is to consume at least half your grains as whole grains, at the very minimum.  This means typically three to five servings of whole grains per day, depending on an individual’s nutrient needs.  

A serving of a whole grain is one slice of whole wheat bread or a half cup of a cooked grain.  However, making all your grains whole grains will offer additional health benefits.

Health Benefits of Whole Grains:

There are so many benefits to adding whole grains to your diet. Studies show:

  • They contain fiber to help lower blood sugar levels, as well as low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels.
  • They reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
  • They contain phytonutrients and antioxidants that fight inflammation, in turn helping to prevent chronic diseases and cancer.
  • They contain more vitamins and minerals than refined grains.  For more details on each grain’s specific nutrient profile, click here.  
  • They are more filling and satisfying due to the intact bran and germ.  This means you’ll be less hungry and as a result, may eat less over the course of the day, which can lead to weight loss.
  • People who eat whole grains versus refined grains are more likely to be able to maintain their weight.
  • Eating whole grains instead of refined grains is associated with lower health care costs.

Ancient versus modern – which is better?

So, knowing the many benefits of whole grains, are there benefits to eating ancient whole grains vs. modern whole grains?  The verdict is still out.  Some studies have shown that ancient grains provide a greater reduction in cardiovascular risk factors. Others have noted improved digestion and better blood sugar control with ancient grains. Still others report that the hype over “ancient grains” is more of a marketing strategy.  What we do know for sure is that ancient grains are whole grains, and we should be eating whole grains!

Tips for trying ancient grains

It is beneficial to include ancient grains in addition to modern whole grains because eating a variety of different types of grains will offer a wider range of nutrient profiles.

  • Start with trying just one new whole grain every few weeks.  Quinoa is a great whole grain to start with as it is easy to find in any grocery store.  It can be found in the rice aisle.  You can cook it on your stove top or in an Instant Pot (pressure cooker).  There are even pouches of quinoa that can go directly into the microwave and cook in just a few minutes.  
  • Be sure to buy grains that are plain, as the pre-seasoned grains can have a high amount of sodium.  Season them yourself with some extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and herbs/spices of your choice.  You can even find blends that are a combination of multiple ancient grains all in one bag!
  • For cooking times and tips, view this helpful resource from the Whole Grains Council.

Stay up to date on the latest in nutrition news in the Nourishing section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Ancient grains are whole grains that have been unchanged for hundreds of years and have a variety of health benefits.

Katy MacQueen, MS, RD


Katy Macqueen is a clinical dietitian in the Center for Weight and Wellness.