A selection of grains: quinoa, brown rice, millet, amaranth, teff, buckwheat, sorghum.
A selection of grains: quinoa, brown rice, millet, amaranth, teff, buckwheat, sorghum.
Image: 123RF / Marek Uliasz

Ancient grains. So happening, so ancient, so grainy. So what. When you look further than the Instagram posts from the “wellness” and “green” spheres, this trend looks like just another way for big business to take your cash.  

Why does vintage matter and how ancient is ancient? The jury’s out on that one. In fact, the time frames are so different for the revered foods in the category, that it seems being unhybridised is the real defining factor. The thinking is that kamut, amaranth, quinoa, spelt, farro, millet and a few others are all prize-winning because (apart from being flown in from exotic destinations) their genes are “intact”.

Apparently. This means we’re biologically adapted to them. Really? If my ancestors have been cut off from South America for, say, 14 000 years, I’m adapted to quinoa? Interesting. Some sources state that it’s because they’re unprocessed. Well, okay, but then surely any grain can be eaten unprocessed? Why the need to be ancient? Or even middle-aged? Actually, most studies show “modern”, or less venerable, grains are in no way inferior to their ancient counterparts when viewed nutritionally, if all are unprocessed.

There’s also the fact that many so-called “ancient” grains aren’t even grains. So, how do we compare them to other grains? And are the categories “new” and “old” useful at all? In other words, is ancientness any reason to group stuff together? For example, amaranth, a much-lauded ancient among this group, has a very different nutritional profile to either millet or quinoa (which, by the way, is a seed). And farro, which is a wheat (and, yes, contains gluten), is different again.   

I prefer the following labels. “Grains farmed without pesticides or fossil-fuel based fertilisers”. Or how about “grains with the lowest water input”? Or perhaps “grains grown by small-scale farmers with fair-trade measures in place”? Those are all categories I can get passionate about. There are certainly loads of “ancient” crops, which are farmed in good, traditional ways, but then there are also many upstart parvenu crops which are farmed regeneratively.    

Bottom line is: modern, ancient or just grains d’un certain age, if you eat grains, seeds, or any of their botanical relatives, the way they’re farmed and the way they’re processed is way more important to both the planet’s health and yours than any other factors.   

WE HAVE A WINNER

This week’s prize for most hilarious use of ancient grains has to go to Cheerios. Yes, Cheerios + ancient grains is a real thing. It does means the good people at General Mills needed to increase the sugar levels but maybe they’re using an ancient sort of sugar, in which case it’s all okay. Eish. Road to nowhere.   

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