The number of people looking for wheat alternatives that are naturally gluten-free due to preference or wheat allergy is growing right alongside the rising incidence of Celiac disease and gluten intolerance.
The desire and need for a gluten-free diet has skyrocketed but luckily, there are plenty of alternative gluten-free grains available to consumers. These ancient grains, which originate from countries in Africa and South America, have fed people for thousands of years, and are high in nutrients such as protein, vitamins, and minerals.
So what is an “ancient grain?” There’s no exact definition, according to the Whole Grains Council. However, they’re generally considered to be grains that have been passed down through the millennium intact and have not been hybridized as wheat has.
Here are seven ancient grains that offer alternatives to people looking for gluten-free grains.
Amaranth, a native to Peru, was a staple of the Incas as well as the Aztecs in Mexico, and is estimated to have first been cultivated between 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. Amaranth is not a true “cereal grain,” but it’s a seed like many of the other “ancient grains.”
Amaranth has a slight peppery taste and is often toasted before being cooked. Many people in South America eat popped amaranth, like popcorn. It’s also frequently used in breakfast cereals and porridges.
One cup of cooked amaranth contains:
- 9.3 grams of protein, or 19% of the daily recommendation.
- 0.28 mg of vitamin B6 (14% of RDA)
- 54.1 mcg of folate (14% of RDA)
- 5.2 mg of iron (29% RDA)
- 160 mg of magnesium (40% RDA)
- 364 mg phosphorus (36% RDA)
- 2.1 mg manganese (105% RDA)
Buckwheat contains no gluten and is not a true “wheat.” Like Amaranth, it’s a pseudo-grain, which is really a seed. Buckwheat was first cultivated in the Balkan region of Europe about 4,000 B.C., but has likely been nourishing people for more than 8,000 years, according to the Whole Grain Council. Buckwheat then spread around the globe, and it was one of the first crops grown by the early American settlers.
Buckwheat groats, as the seeds are called, are pyramid shaped and similar to the shape of beech tree seeds. Buckwheat is a staple of many gluten-free cereals and porridges, and is also commonly used to make gluten-free buckwheat pancakes.
Buckwheat is mineral rich and contains:
- 0.25 mg of copper (12% RDA)
- 0.68 mg of manganese (34% RDA)
- 85.7 mg of magnesium (21% RDA)
Buckwheat is also high in soluble fiber, which can help to regulate blood sugar for those with diabetes or high blood sugar.
Chia seeds are also not a true grain. Chia seeds are native to Mexico and Central America and were staple food for the ancient Aztec warriors.
Chia seeds have a gelatinous texture when soaked in liquid similar to tapioca. They work well as a binder in gluten-free recipes and can be used to make a delicious vegan pudding. Be aware however, that they can also affect your gastric system, either constipating or causing diarrhea, depending on the amount and the individual.
Chia seeds are high in protein and one ounce of seeds contains:
- 4.7 grams of protein (9% RDA)
- 9.8 grams of fiber (39% RDA)
- 95 mg of magnesium (24% RDA)
- 244 mg phosphorus (24% RDA)
- 0.77 mg of manganese (39% RDA)
- 15.6 mcg of selenium (22% RDA)
Millet is indigenous to Asia and was a main staple there 8,300 years ago before rice was cultivated, according to the Whole Grains Council. Millet is actually the name given to several small seed grains in the Poaceae grass family. Like the other “ancient grains” listed above, millet is not a true grain, but a grass seed.
Millet is now the sixth most commonly eaten grain in the world. It’s a main staple in India, where it’s used to make roti flat bread, and is a staple in parts of Africa, where it’s eaten as porridge. It’s also highly revered in Taiwan, where they have a millet festival each year. In the U.S., millet is most commonly used in birdseed. However, it’s becoming more popular for human consumption as a gluten-free “grain” and in ethnic foods.
One cup of cooked millet contains:
- 6.1 grams of protein (12% RDA)
- 0.8 mg of thiamin (12% RDA)
- 2.3 mg of niacin (12% RDA)
- 76.6 mg magnesium (19% RDA)
- 0.47 mg of manganese (24% RDA)
Pronounced “keen-whaa,” this ancient grain hails from Bolivia and Peru, where it was a major staple of the Incas, and has been cultivated for over 5,000 years. Though also not a true grain, quinoa is a pseudo-cereal seed, and is more closely related to beets, spinach, and chard. Even the greens can be eaten.
Quinoa is very drought resistant, and can be grown in poor soils, according to Whole Grains Council. There are more than 120 known varieties of quinoa, but the most common varieties are white, red, and black. There are very slight differences in nutritional content between the different colors. They all contain the same amount of protein, while the red varieties have slightly more fiber and fat content.
Quinoa is the most nutrient-rich of all the ancient grains and the only plant-food that is a complete protein.
One cup of cooked quinoa contains:
- 8.1 grams of protein (16% RDA)
- 118 mg of magnesium (30% RDA)
- 281 mg of phosphorus (28% RDA)
- 1.2 mg of manganese (58% RDA)
Historic records indicate that the ancient grain sorghum was collected more than 8,000 years ago in southern Egypt, and soon after was cultivated in both the Ethiopia and Sudan areas of Africa. Sorghum is widely consumed through Africa, India, China, and other parts of Asia. In the U.S., it’s predominantly used for livestock feed and ethanol production. Sorghum is the fifth most consumed grain in the world, and due to the high demand for gluten-free foods it’s starting to be used for human consumption in the U.S. well.
Sorghum, often eaten with the husk on, is one of few grains with an edible husk, which helps it retain many of the nutrients that are removed in other grains. Sorghum is high in antioxidants as well as policosanols (found in the wax coating of the husk) that some research has shown to lower cholesterol equal to that of statin drugs.
You can eat sorghum as a popped grain, as a cooked grain for breakfast cereal, or in place of rice. It’s often used as flour in the recipes for gluten-free baked goods. Most gluten-free beers are also brewed using sorghum.
One cup cooked sorghum contains:
- 20.4 grams of protein (41% RDA)
- 317 mg of magnesium (79% RDA)
- 555 mg of phosphorus (55% RDA)
- 3.1 mg manganese (154% RDA)
- 23.4 mcg selenium (33% RDA)
Teff may be best known for the flour used in the spongy Ethiopian injera bread. A staple of both Ethiopia and Eritrea since about 4,000 B.C., teff grows well in both soggy damp soils and in droughts, and it’s immune to most plant diseases so is a very versatile crop. The seeds are very small, about the size of poppy seeds, and it only takes a handful of seeds to grow a whole field of teff.
Teff is higher in calcium than other grains and one cup of cooked teff contains:
- 123 mg of calcium (12% RDA) equal to the amount in ½-cup cooked spinach
- 7.1 grams of fiber (28% RDA)
- 9.8 grams of protein (20% RDA)
- 0.46 mg of thiamin (31% RDA)
- 5.2 mg of iron (29% RDA)
- 302 mg of phosphorus (30% RDA)
- 0.57 mg copper (28% RDA)
- 7.2 mg of manganese (an amazing 360% RDA!)
Teff is always eaten in the whole form, as the grain is too small to husk, so more of the nutrients are eaten rather than left behind. It has a mild flavor and besides injera bread, it can be found in many gluten-free ingredients. It’s now grown around the world from Africa, to Australia to the United States.
Curious how to use these grains and seeds in your diet and how they taste? Here are some recipes to help you get started cooking with these ancient grains.
Gluten-Free Vegan Coconut Buckwheat Pancakes
- coconut oil for cooking
- 1½ cups buckwheat flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons flax meal
- ½ cups unsweetened coconut flakes
- 3 tablespoons coconut oil, melted
- 2 cups coconut milk
Heat a cast-iron skillet or griddle over medium heat. Mix dry ingredients together in bowl. Stir in coconut oil and half the coconut milk, mixing, and adding more coconut milk to get the right consistency for pancake batter. You may not need all the milk.
Coat the skillet with coconut oil and wipe out with a paper towel. Spoon ¼ cup of batter onto the skillet and cook until bubbles form at the edge. Flip the pancakes and cook until slightly brown. Serve with maple syrup.
Makes 14 4-inch pancakes
Gluten-Free Ancient Grains Hot Cereal
- ¼ cup quinoa
- ¼ cup millet
- ¼ cup buckwheat groats
- ¼ cup amaranth
- ¼ cup flax meal
- ¼ cup dry roasted sunflower seeds
- ¼ cup chopped pecans
- ¼ cup raisins, dried currents, dried blueberries, or dried cranberries
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 3½ cups water
Mix together all dry ingredients. Bring the water to a boil then stir in the dry ingredients, stirring frequently to avoid clumping. Return to boil then simmer on low heat for 15 to 20 minutes or until cereal is done.
Makes 4 servings
Gluten-Free Teff Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
- 1 cup organic dry-roasted peanut butter
- 1 ½ cups teff flour
- ½ cup unsweetened applesauce
- ¼ cup organic maple syrup
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- ½ bag of dark chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two cookie sheets with coconut oil. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the peanut butter, vanilla, applesauce, and maple syrup and mix until creamy. Add the teff flour and salt and combine well. Fold in chocolate chips. Scoop into 1½-inch balls and flatten with a fork. Arrange in rows with 1 inch of space around each cookie.
Bake at 350 degrees for 13 minutes, until bottoms are golden brown. Let cool on cookie rack.
Makes 15 to 18 cookies
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.