What exactly are Ancient Grains?

photo of millet from ThinkStock via Tri County Health Dept

Have you ever heard of freekeh, einkorn, or sorghum? These are three of a multitude of nutritious ancient grains that offer a variety of health benefits. Grains are seeds from Gramineae family plants.  Grains have been the foundation of nutrition for many years because of their nutritional value and chemical properties, allowing a multitude of uses in the food industry. Ancient grains are typically marketed as a “healthier” option compared to modern grains, partly because they are rarely eaten in a processed form. Modern grains such as corn, rice and varieties of wheat are often a product of many years of genetic modification and selective breeding. Therefore, ancient grains are perceived to be a more natural option. It is important to note that ancient grain flours do not work like modern wheat. The grains are best cooked as whole grains and cooking is similar for all of them.

There is no comprehensive list of ancient grains, but these are typically identified as ancient grains:

  • barley
  • bulger (wheat)
  • buckwheat
  • kamut (Khorasan wheat)
  • millet
  • spelt
  • teff
  • freekeh
  • sorghum
  • farro
  • einkorn
  • emmer
  • quinoa

Each grain has distinct qualities that make it beneficial to your health. Five ancient grains and their unique nutritional components are highlighted below.


This ancient grain is a staple in many African and Asian countries. Fun fact… it is the main ingredient in birdseed! Millet is a grain high in copper, manganese, phosphorous, and magnesium. Copper is an essential trace mineral that helps the body form red blood cells and phosphorus helps with the formation of bones and teeth. Try out this recipe for Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Millet Cookies from Bob’s Red Mill.  What a great way to add copper, manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium to a sweet treat!

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Millet Cookies

½ cup Sugar

½ cup Brown Sugar (packed)

1 cup Peanut Butter

½ cup Unsalted Butter (softened)

1 Egg

¾ cup Millet Flour

¼ cup Arrowroot Starch

½ tsp Baking Soda

½ tsp Baking Powder

¼ tsp Salt

1 cup Chocolate Chips

Cream together the sugars, PB and butter.  Beat in the egg.

Mix the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl.

Thoroughly mix the dry ingredients into the butter mixture.  Stir in the chocolate chips.

Refrigerate the cookie dough for 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 350°.  Form cookies using 1 TB dough each, and place on baking sheet. Bake about 12 minutes or until edges begin to brown.

photo of sorghum from ThinkStock via Tri County Health Dept


Sorghum is eight-thousand years old and originally collected in southern Egypt. Due to its reduced need for water and tolerance against drought, it is a staple crop in many parts of Asia and Africa. To cook sorghum, first rinse it and then boil it until tender. Sorghum is a perfect substitute for wheat flour in baked goods like pancakes and cookies, however it will not work for yeast bread. It has a neutral, slightly sweet flavor. Some specialty sorghums are even high in antioxidants.


Don’t mistake Teff’s small size for being low in nutrients. Teff has the highest content of calcium out of any of the ancient grains. One cup of cooked Teff offers 123 mg of calcium. You can either boil Teff and add it to vegetables, salads, soups, or casseroles or it can be ground into flour to bake with. Check out the below recipe for Teff Burgers from Bob’s Red Mill.

photo of teff from ThinkStock via Tri County Health Dept

Teff Burgers

1 cup Whole Grain Teff (cooked)

3 cups water

2 tbsp sesame oil

1 tsp thyme (ground)

2 garlic cloves (minced)

¼ tsp sea salt

3 scallions (finely chopped)

Jarlsberg Cheese (as a topping)

  1. Combine teff, water, sesame oil, thyme, garlic and salt in a saucepan, bring to a boil, cover and simmer 15 min, stiffing once of twice during cooking.
  2. Spread cooked teff on a shallow pan to cool.  When cool, add scallions and form 6 patties.
  3. Heat a nonstick skillet, coat lightly with nonstick vegetable spray and fry patties until nicely browned on both sides.
  4. Top with Jarlsberg cheese, turn off heat and allow cheese to melt.
  5. Serve on whole wheat buns with lettuce and tomatoes.

photo of kamut from ThinkStock via Tri County Health Dept

Kamut (Khorasan wheat)

Kamut is high in fiber, protein, and several minerals, including selenium and manganese. Selenium has antioxidant properties which can protect against cell damage and manganese is considered an essential nutrient because our bodies require it to function properly. To cook Kamut, soak it overnight before letting it simmer for 30-40 minutes. It typically has a nutty flavor and is great in soups and salads, some even add it to pancakes and pizza!

photo of freaked from ThinkStock via Tri County Health Dept


Freekeh is a young green wheat full of fiber and high in selenium, potassium, and magnesium. Potassium is a type of electrolyte and mineral that helps your muscles contract and nerves function normally. Magnesium is a mineral that stabilizes blood pressure, supports strong bones, and promotes a steady heartbeat. It is typically sold toasted and cracked. To cook Freekeh, boil it with a pinch of salt until water has been absorbed. It is often incorporated into stir-fries and soups.

Below is a table detailing the nutrition facts of the discussed Ancient Grains. Values are based on 1 cup of the cooked grain. Brown Rice is included for comparison.


Grain Brown Rice Millet Sorghum Teff Kamut Freekeh
Calories (kcal) 218 207 253 255 227 228
Carbohydrate (g) 45.8 41.2 55.4 50 47.5 44.2
Protein (g) 4.5 6.1 8.2 9.8 9.8 9.4
Fat (g) 1.6 1.7 2.7 1.6 1.4 2
Fiber (g) 3.5 2.3 5.1 7.1 7.4 10.7
Calcium (mg) 20 5 10 123 15 22
Magnesium (mg) 86 44 127 126 83 67
Phosphorus (mg) 150 100 222 302 253 330
Potassium (mg) 154 108 279 270 282 280
Source: USDA Nutrient Database and Bob’s Red Mill


As you can see above, Ancient Grains are nutrient dense and are also a healthy source of carbohydrate and protein. The possibilities are endless when it comes to incorporating ancient grains into a healthy diet. Most of these grains care sold by Bobs Red Mill or Village Harvest and can be bought online or in stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or your local grocery store. Grains such as Millet, Buckwheat, Barley, and Quinoa are widely available in most grocery stores. The next time you are making soup, salad, or any type of casserole dish, consider incorporating one of these ancient grains into the mix!

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