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Ancient grains are an excellent and healthy alternative to wheat or rice. Full of vitamins and minerals, they make a great addition to a healthy diet. Photo: Shutterstock

Explainer | Amaranth, spelt, teff, kamut, fonio – know your ancient grains, their health benefits and how to cook using them

  • More nutritious than modern wheat, ancient grains are full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and packed with dietary fibre and protein
  • These grains can be used as a rice substitute, in risottos, salads, soups and pilafs, or to make porridge. Flour from these grains meet all your baking needs

Whole grains are recommended as part of a healthy diet, to help reduce the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. They are an excellent source of dietary fibre, too, a key ingredient in keeping the digestive system running smoothly and maintaining a healthy weight.

Barley, brown rice, buckwheat, cracked wheat (bulgur) and oats are common whole grains. But there are several other grains that have largely been ignored until recently. Teff, spelt, farro (the grains of three wheat species – spelt, emmer and einkorn), sorghum, amaranth, kamut and fonio might sound obscure to some, but that doesn’t mean they’re new.

These are known as ancient or heirloom grains because they’ve been staple foods for certain cultures for hundreds or thousands of years. Unlike modern wheat, which has been developed by cross breeding and genetic manipulation, ancient grains have remained largely unchanged.

Ancient grains are sometimes referred to as super grains because they are more nutritious than refined modern grain products, are grown in an environmentally friendly manner, and are rich in protein, dietary fibre, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, and several antioxidants.

Whole spelt grains are a great substitute for rice in risottos. Photo: Shutterstock

These grains are slowly becoming more mainstream, readily available in supermarkets and speciality stores and appearing in everyday products such as pasta, crackers, bread and snack bars.

You can buy them whole or ground into flour. Spelt, kamut, amaranth, teff and fonio, in particular, seem to be leading the trend. Here’s what you should know about preparing and consuming them. We talked to dietitian Sally Shi-po Poon, the founder of Personal Dietitian in Hong Kong and Michelle Lau, a Hong Kong nutritionist and founder of nutrition consultancy Nutrilicious for their thoughts on these wonder grains.

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Spelt This subspecies of wheat is native to Iran and parts of Europe. The grain has a distinct nutty flavour and slight chewiness and is easy to digest. It is it is low in gluten, high in protein, fibre, B vitamins and minerals.

Spelt is often sold as flour, which can be used to make bread, pancakes, waffles, cookies, scones, pizza crust and muffins.

If using whole grain spelt berries, Poon suggests soaking them overnight before boiling them for about 30 minutes until soft. The berries make a great substitute for rice in risotto, are perfect as a base in a grain salad, and add heartiness to soups and stews.

Kamut is delicious with a buttery flavour and goes well with pilafs, soups and salads. Photo: Shutterstock

Kamut Lau says this golden grain is a good source of selenium, zinc, magnesium and iron. It is also a complete protein, as it contains all eight essential amino acids (there are around 6g of protein per 100g of kamut). Plus, it’s delicious, with a rich buttery flavour.

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Kamut berries make a great addition to pilafs, soups and cold salads. Poon says to soak the berries overnight and boil them for 45 to 60 minutes until soft. Kamut flour is excellent for making bread, pancakes, waffles, cookies, cakes, pizza crusts, muffins and scones.

Amaranth is gluten- and wheat-free and can be eaten as grains or ground into flour. Photo: Shutterstock

Amaranth The yellow grains are tiny, much like quinoa, and were once a staple food in the Inca, Maya and Aztec civilisations. Lau says that amaranth is gluten- and wheat-free, and is a good source of protein, calcium, fibre and iron.

Amaranth is easy to cook, versatile, and has a crunchy texture, making it a delicious addition to salads and soups. Use amaranth flour to make bread, pancakes, cookies and muffins. If using whole amaranth grains, Poon recommends cooking it like porridge.

You can also toss the grains into cookie batter to add extra crunch and nutrients.

Teff grains are a big source of calcium and are delicious sprinkled over vegetables and salads. Photo: Shutterstock

Teff Teff grains may resemble poppy seeds in the size department, but they’re a big source of calcium, says Lau, with one cup of cooked teff grains providing 123mg of the mineral. Teff flour is a staple in Ethiopia and Eritrea and is the main ingredient in injera, a sour fermented flatbread that’s considered the national dish of both countries. It has a sweet, earthy and nutty flavour.

Lau recommends sprinkling the grains over vegetables and salads. Poon recommends using the grains to make pilafs and porridge. The flour can be used for bread, muffins, cookies, cakes and pastry.

Fonio is gluten-free and has a low glycaemic index. Photo: Shutterstock

Fonio A type of millet, fonio has been cultivated in West Africa for thousands of years. It is similar to couscous in appearance and texture and has a mild nutty flavour. It has a low glycaemic index, so it’s a good choice for people with diabetes, and is gluten-free, making it ideal for people with wheat intolerances.

Lau says that fonio is rich in fibre and protein – in fact, it has at least three times the fibre and protein of brown rice (or about 12g of protein per cup). You don’t even need to cook it – combine one part fonio to two parts boiling water, leave it for several minutes and then fluff it with a fork. Use the softened grains in salads, as a substitute for rice, or mixed with milk and fruit for a hot and hearty breakfast porridge. Fonio can also be milled into flour for breads and other baked goods.

Not all ancient grains are suitable for everyone. Poon says people who have coeliac disease or are allergic to wheat should avoid eating all types of wheat, including spelt, kamut, einkorn and farro. Some ancient grains like kamut and spelt also have a firm, chewy texture and are best avoided by people who have difficulty chewing, particularly older adults.

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If you have a medical condition such as inflammatory bowel disease that requires a low-fibre diet, or if you are undergoing radiation therapy to your pelvis and lower bowel, have recently had bowel surgery, or are preparing for a colonoscopy, then you should stay clear of ancient grains as well.

“A low-fibre diet reduces the frequency and volume of stools,” says Poon. “This minimises irritation to the gastrointestinal tract and can help it heal. Use a low-fibre diet if you suffer from an abnormal narrowing of your intestine (called a stricture) to avoid blockages forming.”

Poon also recommends against eating too much fibre if you’re not used to it, as this may result in unwanted side effects such as abdominal bloating, gas and cramps. Minimise these problems by starting with a small amount and gradually increasing it, she says. Adequate fluids are also essential when consuming fibre-rich foods.  

Lau warns that some ancient grains tend to be calorie dense, so if you’re weight-conscious you should be mindful of portions to prevent weight gain.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: five ancient grains for modern tables