Ancient grains have grown in popularity in recent years, no pun intended, with an ever-increasing number of people shunning modern selectively-bred grains such as wheat, maize and rice in favour of age-old alternatives that haven't been altered for millennia.
While modern wholegrains can be just as healthy as their ancient counterparts, wheat, maize and rice tend more often than not to be overly refined and lack the nutrients many unprocessed ancient grains possess.
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An ancestor of modern wheat, spelt contains nutrients most modern varieties of wheat lack. Higher in protein, fibre and complex carbs than many modern wheat grains and slightly lower in gluten, spelt is an excellent source of essential micronutrients, from copper, iron and manganese, to potassium, zinc and B vitamins.
You can use spelt flour in place of white or brown wheat flour. Just remember, spelt flour absorbs more water and amalgamates better than wheat flour, so it needs less liquid and mixing.
A key ingredient of bird seed in the West, this ancient gluten-free grass is a staple food in many other parts of the world. Millet is packed with fibre and contains higher amounts of essential minerals than modern wheat, maize and rice. Plus, the age-old grain has a lower glycemic index than many modern grains and may be more helpful than wheat, for instance, if you want to lose weight.
How to use millet: Millet is delicious prepared in a similar way to couscous, added to bread, cakes and muffins, or popped like corn.
Step aside milk. If it's calcium you're after, look no further than teff, a tiny ancient grain that has been cultivated in Ethiopia and Eritrea for thousands of years. The poppy seed-sized grain is particularly rich in calcium, boasting the highest levels of any grain. Teff is also a good source of iron, manganese, thiamine and even vitamin C, which isn't usually found in grains, and it's gluten-free to boot.
How to use teff: Teff flour works wonderfully as a wheat flour replacement in pancakes, flatbreads and fritters.
This trendy ancient seed from South America has one distinct advantage over modern grains: it's impressively high in protein, packing a whopping 13g per 100g, and contains all nine essential amino acids. The high protein content keeps you feeling fuller for longer, so it's no surprise quinoa is a popular grain for people watching their waistline. Quinoa is also free from gluten and an excellent source of fibre, magnesium and manganese.
How to use quinoa: Try it in salads, pilafs, stir fries and breads.
How to cook quinoa
The latest fashionable grain to hit the health food stores, amaranth was a staple food of the Aztecs and even featured in their religious ceremonies. Like quinoa, amaranth contains all nine essential amino acids including lysine, which is unusual for a grain, ancient or modern, and overall, it packs twice as much protein as white rice. Plus, a generous portion of amaranth contains almost the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of iron.
How to use amaranth: Subtly nutty, amaranth is especially tasty as a breakfast cereal or added to soups and stews.
Like amaranth, chia seeds were also cultivated by the Aztecs and revered as an important food crop. A health food staple in the 21st century, these tiny seeds are jam-packed with nutrients and are one of the few non animal-derived sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Chia seeds contain protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, too.
How to use chia seeds: Give them a go by sprinkling some on your morning cereal, adding them to breads and cakes, or blending the tiny grains in a smoothie.
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Don't be fooled by the name. Buckwheat is completely unrelated to wheat and contains zero gluten. A flowering plant related to rhubarb and sorrel rather than a grass, buckwheat is cultivated for its nutritious seeds, which are pounded down to make buckwheat flour. Unlike wheat, buckwheat is a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids.
How to use buckwheat: It works best in pancakes, porridge or added to breads.
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Believe it or not, sorghum is the fifth most produced grain in the world, after wheat, maize, rice and barley. Popular in India and Africa, the ancient cereal is a nutritional powerhouse. Free from gluten, sorghum is bursting with vitamins and minerals, and boasts more antioxidants than prized superfoods such as pomegranates and goji berries.
How to use sorghum: Try it in porridge, in place of couscous or rice, or popped.
'Kamut' khorasan wheat
This ancient type of wheat has been rediscovered and trademarked as Kamut grain. Exclusively gown as an organic crop in the States under tightly controlled conditions, the grain is high in protein, fibre and minerals, particularly selenium. Like modern wheat however, this old school grain contains gluten, so give it a miss if you're intolerant.
How to use kamut grain: The flour has a pleasant nutty flavour and tastes yummy in bread, biscuits and cakes.
This variety of barley – which contains gluten – is a heirloom grain that originates from Ethiopia. Black barley offers all the nutritional benefits of modern barley. Loaded with protein, iron, zinc and heart-healthy soluble fibre, it's as wholesome as they come. But the black variety goes the extra mile in the nutrition stakes, thanks to its high antioxidant content – the anthocyanin pigments that give the grain its black hue have potent health-promoting properties.
How to use black barley: Use in place of pearl barley or rice in stews and risottos.
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