There’s a lot of hype these days around ancient grains. While they won’t likely rival cash crops like corn, soy, and wheat, niche demand for them is starting to grow. About one in five Americans is willing to pay a premium for more nutritious foods. The global wellness industry is capitalized in the hundreds of billions of dollars. That bodes well for ancient grains.
What exactly are these ancient grains? They’re a variety of traditional staples that have remained genetically unchanged for centuries and even millennia. Unlike mainstream grains like monoculture corn and wheat, they’ve not been selectively bred and modified.
But it’s more than just their purity and antiquity that consumers find attractive. These ancient grains are superfoods brimming with nutritional benefits. They’re also hardy plants, adapted to flourish even in harsh conditions. That means their environmental impacts fall significantly below those of conventional grains.
What kinds of grains could we see more of on American farms? Here’s a brief intro to some of the more appealing ancient grains.
- Amaranth: Fiber, calcium, iron, potassium, protein–amaranth has it all in spades. To top it off, it’s even gluten free, which may help to establish it as an alternative to wheat.
One of the most ancient grains surviving, amaranth was first domesticated some six to
eight millennia ago. One of the reasons it’s survived is its durability. Even in the harshest climates and thinnest soils, it can flourish.
- Millet: Even older than amaranth is millet. The Chinese first cultivated millet 10,000 years ago, and millet (not rice!) continues to be a staple of Northern China.
Like amaranth, millet is renowned for its health benefits, most notably its magnesium content. That makes it an alkaline food, easy on the digestive tract. Even more significantly, millet’s magnesium-packed grain lowers cholesterol and promotes healthy blood pressure levels.
Millet is a summer crop that tends to grow well in loamy soil. It doesn’t require much water inputs, and grows quickly in northern climates like Wisconsin and Minnesota.
- Kamut: A large whole-grain wheat with a buttery taste, kamut is richly endowed with protein, fatty acids, polyphenols, minerals, and antioxidants. It can help fight inflammation and boost immune health.
It originates from Egypt, where it is still used to make flatbreads. (Interestingly, it’s called Khorasan wheat in most parts of the world, except in the United States. That’s because the Quinn family, an enterprising farming clan looking to revive the ancient grain as an organic staple, trademarked the name kamut in 1990).
Kamut grows readily without fertilizers or pesticide use, making it an ideal crop for the ecologically-conscious.
- Sorghum: Sorghum is an edible grass, and a single serving furnishes nearly half the daily recommended fiber intake. It’s good for the heart and digestive system.
Originally cultivated in Africa, it remains a staple grain in many parts of the world. It’s
drought-tolerant, which is good news for farmers in locations where aquifer depletion has reached critical levels.
Also of interest is its use in biofuel applications. Unlike ethanol, it requires less water, pesticide, and fertilizer inputs, which makes it a more sustainable energy source.