Ancient grains are a group of grains and pseudocereals (seeds that are consumed like grains) that have remained mostly unchanged for thousands of years. These grains that included pearl millet (bajra), ragi (finger millet) or little millet (kutki) and even traditional rice varieties were all part of staple diets around the world. They were an important source of daily nutrient requirements for ancient civilisations in countries such as China, India, Africa and the Middle East.
Barley is mentioned in the Rigveda as the initial staple food of the Aryans.
Later texts mention lentils (red, green and black) and rice as complementary nutritional elements consumed by them. There is also a mention of apupa, a form of cake prepared by frying barley. Aryans knew about rice cultivation; parched rice and cereals were a common method of processing during that period.
According to the late Dr R H Richharia, a renowned rice scientist, about 400,000 traditional rice varieties existed in India during the Vedic period. He had estimated that even in the 1980s about 200,000 rice varieties existed in the country – a truly phenomenal number. This means that if a person were to eat a new rice variety every day of the year, he could live for over 500 years without reusing a variety!
Then the Green Revolution happened and the Government turned its attention to modern seed varieties with higher yields. This resulted in a loss of valuable traditional genetic resources and loss of knowledge of the uses of ancient grain varieties. These grains lost their importance as commercialisation of crops and dietary habits influenced by the West made people switch to grains like corn, modern wheat and rice.
The health benefits
Now Covid-19 and the scramble to boost immunity levels has once again revived interest and demand for these grains which are powerhouses of nutrition and immunity building components.
Khorasan wheat (kamut), sorghum (jowar), barley, teﬀ (the world’s smallest grain), millet, amaranth, freekeh (made from green durum wheat), quinoa, bulgur (cracked wheat), quinoa and einkorn are some of the well known ancient grains.
Because they are less processed, they retain their inherent vitamins, minerals, and fibres as compared to modern grains.
Studies have linked ancient grain consumption to health benefits, such as lower heart disease risk, better blood sugar control, and improved digestion.
Plenty of ancient grains are also gluten-free, such as quinoa, millet, fonio, sorghum, amaranth and teff. These are suitable for people who cannot tolerate gluten or wheat.
Einkorn is considered to be the first original wheat, the seed planted by the first farmers 12,000 years ago during the Neolithic Revolution. History shows that the first bread was made with einkorn, and it was Ötzi the Iceman’s last meal. Einkorn is the only wheat that was never hybridised and has only two sets of chromosomes.
So it is a true ancient grain, higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates than modern wheat.
Of all the ancient grains, millets have the most variety - there are about eight varieties of millets like for example jowar, bajra, nachni or ragi.
Millets are basically gluten free, they also have very low glycemic index so naturally they are good for diabetics.
They are also very good in proteins, especially foxtail millet.
Millets are high in iron, zinc and folate and they offer three times the calcium of milk. Millets can be eaten in many forms - as rice, porridge, flour for all bakery products, soup, etc.
The Indian government is promoting millets big time and globally the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has also declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets.
Also belonging to the millet family, Sorghum or jowar is the fifth most consumed grain worldwide and a great source of nutrients.
It is naturally gluten-free and can be easily ground into a flour.
It can be eaten in various forms such as chapati, dosa, bhakri, cheela etc.
This ancient Indian grain is one of the healthiest choices for carbohydrate intake.
The protein content present in 100g of jowar is 10.4g and can increase if consumed in the sprouted form.
What used to be a staple food of the Aztecs, Amaranth (rajgira) is ironically a grass not a grain.
A major food crop of India, it is a great source of plant protein.
Its tiny yellow spheres with a peppery flavour are high in iron, protein, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium.
It is also the only grain documented to contain Vitamin C.
Sprouting amaranth seeds enhances their nutritional value and they make a great addition to salads as well.
Similarly, buckwheat (not from wheat) is a pseudo grain that is hugely popular in India as it is gluten free and is eaten during festivals like Navratri or other fasting days in the form of pooris, rotis and fritters. It can also be added in global cuisines like risotto, noodles and pizza.
Like any other grain, ancient grains can be used in pilafs, soups, and salads or paired with a chili or stir-fry, like rice, or be ground into flours and used for baking breads, making pancakes, etc. Ragi dosa, dumplings, pancakes and porridge are other dishes, one can prepare with ragi. Adding a small portion of millets to your idli, dosa batter or roti dough for breakfast is a good way to start the day. To ensure that you’re getting the full benefit of nutrients in ancient grains, try to eat a variety of diﬀerent grains as each grain has something diﬀerent to oﬀer, from the calcium in ragi to the carbohydrates in sorghum. Most of these grains are available on amazon.in including teff and einkorn (Jovial is a popular international brand that grows it organically).
Chef Michael Swamy, who curates indigenous cuisines working with tribes in Madhya Pradesh for a leading wildlife resort chain says, “Ancient grains are tied to our DNA - they were created and grown in a systematic manner. They were cultivated and consumed according to the climate and the seasons. Like nachni/ragi is grown and consumed in the winters because it gives the body heat. Our body needs additional nutrition during winter and this millet helps in absorbing the nutrients and building muscle tissue. Ancient grains are an excellent source of various key elements required for the body. Unfortunately due to commercial reasons, modern varieties of wheat and rice are being promoted.”
Devesh Patel, farmer and owner, Satva Organic says, “Our tribal communities have always been eating these traditional grains. But in the urban areas, the desire to mimic the Western culture replaced these grains. Millets were superfoods from the beginning from the time of our sages. Now the realisation has come in that the hybrid varieties only give us carbohydrates and fats but not the nutrients required by our bodies.”
He pointed out that millets are light and very good for digestion. They have all the micro nutrients required by our bodies. It supplies complete nourishment so the immunity is inbuilt.
“These grains help us build our antibodies so we can fight viruses like Covid-19. Look at the poor people who consume bajre ke rotis, or jowar, as they can afford only these but their immunity levels are better than us,” he adds.
Good for the Planet as well
An important fact to note is that many ancient grains thrive with low or no pesticides, fertilisers,and irrigation, making them an attractive choice for consumers who choose to food products that reduce their carbon footprint.
According to the International Crops Research Institute for Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India, millets are important as a solution for farmers in arid areas. Millets are basically the last crop standing in times of drought and can withstand extreme high temperatures. They have a low carbon footprint and due to their resilience and survival with minimal water and poor soil, they are affordable and viable for marginal and small holder farmers.
Millets were a traditional crop across much of Africa and Asia. If these ancient grains are mainstreamed back as a staple in food diets across the world, they can have a major impact on the biggest global environment issues like climate change and water scarcity. Millets are good for us, the Planet and the Farmer. So let’s get them back on our plates.