It seems that many trends in organic food involve old traditions rendered into new products. Ancient grains are an apparent example of this. People have been consuming foods such as quinoa, spelt, bulgur, chia and buckwheat since well before human civilization’s agricultural revolution, and yet most of today’s Americans hadn’t heard of them before the dawn of this millennium.

Due to the foundation of a wave of new companies like Ancient Harvest, Canaan Fair Trade, or Tiny Hero (links), more people than ever are buying organic food. Companies like these sell everything from microwave-ready quinoa (Ancient Harvest) to Flame-Roasted Freekeh (Canaan Fair Trade) straight from the Levant. Companies like these are also part of the wave of people promoting the health food revolution, which, in so many ways, starts with the most ancient form of crop: the grain.

What is an ancient grain?

Consumers may recognize pseudocereals like quinoa and chia as being commonly referred to ancient grains, but there are many more species of ancient grains, such as spelt, bulgur, and buckwheat. These grains are different from more common grains and cereals such as wheat, corn and rice because they haven’t been selectively bred for certain traits, but, rather, are closer to the form they took when they were consumed by the nomadic people (or people of early civilizations like the Aztecs, Egyptians or Sumerians) who depended upon them for survival.

Various forms of these grains were used by these civilizations and their forebears before farming practices were developed, and many of them have health benefits that have since disappeared from starchy crops in more recent millennia.

A Few Kinds of Ancient Grains

Ancient grains come in many forms: wheats, pseudocereals, grains. We’ll look at 5 specific ancient grains here that are some of the more commonly found ones in the United States of America.


Quinoa is one of the most common ancient grains and can be found in a variety of grocery stores, produced by a variety of companies like Tiny Hero Foods, Canaan Food Group, or Ancient Harvest. Quinoa is of the amaranth family. What we eat when we eat quinoa is actually the seed of the plant, but it absorbs water, almost like couscous, but completely different.


Freekeh is a little more difficult to find. It is produced from young wheat, which is still green when harvested. It is then roasted and can be eaten plain or used like croutons in salad. Technically freekeh is the term describing the process of roasting durum wheat in this way, but the dish has been called freekeh for long enough where no one will give you the evil eye if you call it freekeh.


Also known as dinkel wheat, spelt has been grown by humans since 5000 BC. It is one of the earliest domesticated crops. Per hundred grams, spelt contains approximately 70grams of carbohydrates (including 11 grams of fiber), and 15 grams of protein! The crop is also rich in essential minerals such as iron, magnesium, manganese, and phosphorous, and contains B-vitamins in abundance. Put simply, spelt is high quality fuel, and has a low glycemic index level and a high concentration of beneficial nutrients and macronutrients.


A relative of rhubarb, and not even technically a grain, buckwheat is grown in places as remote as Bhutan and as familiar as France. It is considered a pseudocereal since it shares so many traits in common with wheats and grains such as water solubility and high concentration of complex carbohydrates. Despite growing demand, buckwheat remains a very minor crop in the United States, only accounting for approximately 25,000 acres grown annually.

So what are the health benefits of ancient grains?

The central benefits of ancient grains stem from the fact that they are more complex carbohydrates than modern starches like wheat. This means that they have a lower glycemic index level than modern starches, meaning they do not precipitate a spike in blood pressure in the way that white rice or corn do. The carbohydrates take longer to break down and therefore can be utilized more effectively so they aren’t stored as fat right away.

Regularly consuming food with a high glycemic index level can lead to diabetes, meaning replacing consumption of refined or processed carbohydrates with ancient grains may help reduce your risk of diabetes.

Yet another health benefit lies in the rich antioxidant properties of most ancient grains. Antioxidants are molecules that donate electrons to molecules called ‘free radicals’, which can cause mutations in DNA. By donating electrons to these free radicals, antioxidants neutralize the oxidizing (rusting) charge of the free radical and prevent it from doing any further harm.

Where can I buy ancient grains?

Stores from Wal-Mart to Whole Foods carry ancient grains, although some ancient grains are more common than others in certain locations. Quinoa and chia are the most common, although you can find grains like bulgur as ingredients in other foods in many stores. Brands such as Ancient Harvest or Tiny Hero can be found at stores such as Jewel Osco, Fareway or Jungle Jim’s.

More heavily populated areas will tend to have higher availability of ancient grains other than quinoa due to the diversity of palates that comes with higher population densities. Nevertheless, many Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs, even in relatively remote locations, sell ancient grains, just not the diversity that can be found in smaller health food stores in urban areas.

The future of ancient grains

The future looks bright for ancient grains as more people become aware of best practices in food consumption. The starches/carbohydrates in ancient grains are, generally speaking, more complex than even whole grain, and far more complex than refined wheat. The increased popularity of ancient grains is further evidence of a shift in the American palate as the public is educated about healthy habits and the right dietary choices, which are available to be made with every meal.



Chad Weisman—CEO, Golden Strands Communication; ‘creative type’; surfer on the amber waves of grain; avid concert attendee.