Ancient Grains for Modern Palates: Gluten-Free and Eco-Friendly Grains Gain Favor
Jan 31, 2016 05:14PM
JUDITH FERTIGAncient grains are making a comeback. Grown since Neolithic times about 10,000 years ago, varieties of barley, corn, millet and rice have helped assuage the hunger of many communities. Today, yellow millet, dark red whole-grain sorghum, brown quinoa and exotic black rice can help alleviate food shortages.
According to Harry Balzer, an expert surveyor of food and diet trends with The NPD Group, concerns about grains and gluten have prompted about a third of Americans to try to cut back on both since 2012. About 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, estimates the Celiac Disease Foundation, but many more prefer not to eat gluten. Many ancient grains are naturally gluten-free, including amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, rice and teff.
“Some think that a grain-free way of eating is healthier and also better for the planet,” says food writer Maria Speck, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals and Simply Ancient Grains. “But that may be too simplistic, a characteristic of many diet trends.”
Better for Our Health
Whole grains fill us up and provide fiber, both necessary for maintaining optimum digestion and weight, says Kathleen Barnes, a widely published natural health expert in Brevard, North Carolina.
Eating more whole grains has been previously associated with a lower risk of major diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, based on studies by the University of Minnesota and Lund University, in Sweden. Qi Sun, assistant professor in the Harvard School of Public Health department of nutrition, agrees that whole grains are one of the major healthful foods for prevention of major chronic diseases. He’s the lead author of a new Harvard study of data associating consumption of whole grains with a 9 percent reduction in overall mortality and up to 15 percent fewer cardiovascular fatalities during two 25-year-long research initiatives that followed 74,000 woman and 43,000 men. The researchers cited substituting whole grains for refined grains and red meat as likely contributors to longer life.
“Whole grains are nutritional powerhouses, packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, beneficial fiber and even some protein,” observes Speck. With a German father and a Greek mother, she grew up in two cultures where grains are a part of everyday meals. “We eat them because they taste good.”
Better for Local Farmers
Sourcing and eating more organic and GMO-free whole grains (absent modified genetics) can help support local farmers, Speck maintains. Choose barley from Four Star Farms, in Massachusetts; heirloom grits from Anson Mills, in South Carolina; quinoa from White Mountain Farm, in Colorado; or heirloom Japanese rice from Koda Farms, in California.
Better for the Planet
Ancient grains require fewer natural resources to plant, grow and harvest. According to the Water Footprint Network, a pound of beef, millet and rice require 1,851, 568 and 300 gallons of water, respectively, to produce. Substituting grains in diets is a sustainable alternative to meat, and they grow on grasslands that now inefficiently support livestock. According to University of Cambridge Professor of Engineering David MacKay, it takes about 25 times more energy to produce one calorie of beef than one calorie of natural grain. Ancient grains can add variety and flavor to meals and a wealth of them are as close as the gluten-free aisle of a neighborhood grocery or health food store.
Judith Fertig blogs at AlfrescoFoodAndLifestyle.blogspot.com from Overland Park, KS.