How Ancient Grains Help Build Immunity
- 10 Mins Read
- Written by: Jillian Lai Mei Siew
Are ancient grains healthier?
The two world wars triggered paradigm shift in the diet patterns of people globally. The world became more industrialized, and women became liberated to think, to learn, and of course, to work. We had less time and interest to cook at home. The food industry seized this opportunity and bombarded us with ready-to-eat packaged meals. They gradually infected us with the idea of convenience of processed food-one that does not perish nor does it lose taste. Weekends became symbolic of outdoor dining, take-aways, and home delivery. Who had the time to think about nutrition, when the entire world was busy embracing the worst of lifestyle illnesses in the garb of modernization and development?
Hardly one generation has passed, and we have altogether traded our nutrition with diseases. From savoring home-cooked, locally-produced whole grain rich meals to gulping down the glorified ‘junk’ of processed food prepared from refined grains, the trend has become a serious threat to health and economy and you no longer can put a lid on it. Doctors and nutrition experts are now alarmed as communities after communities (rural, urban, or tribal) are getting engulfed by lifestyle diseases after switching from their local food to something that is mass-produced, calorie-rich, and nutrition less. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. To make it easy to understand, first we need to group agriculture, nutrition, immunity, and diseases in the same bracket.
Ancient wholegrains-the new modern
From birth to death, food grains follow us on every occasion, in every meal. Sadly, as we reach our mid-life and become obese and diabetic, these food grains are taken away from our plate, just like that. What are these food grains and why our love for them never cease to exist? Grains are the seeds of cereal, pseudo-cereal, and legume plants. Wholegrains are composed of fiber-rich ‘bran’, vitamin loaded ‘germ, and carbohydrate filled ‘endosperm.’1 Brown rice, millets, oats, and quinoa are wholegrains.1 We cannot directly eat whole grains in their raw form. We process and refine these grains to make them suitable for our cooking style, taste preference and easy intake. Bread and pasta prepared from refined grains and white rice are composed of starchy endosperm, because the nutritious bran and germ are washed away during milling and refining. Fortification at later stages does not compensate the lost nutrients. To make it worse, refined grains are digested and absorbed very quickly in our body, meddle with sugar and insulin levels, and make us prone to lifestyle diseases.
This shift in balance towards refined grains began when the agricultural revolution gained momentum worldwide. Due to their low-yield, ancient grains were abandoned. Due to selective production and consumption of refined grains like wheat, maize, and rice became staple food and completely side-lined the whole grains. However, with rising consumer demand, public awareness towards healthy eating, and hostile climate patterns, the focus is redirected towards health benefits of ancient grains such as barley, oats, millets and also pseudo-cereals including amaranth, buckwheat, chia, and quinoa.2 Why are ancient grains good for you? Loaded with dietary fiber, flavonoids, high protein content, minerals and vitamins- these underutilized ancient wholegrains have stood the test of time and are now finally accredited as ‘functional foods’, owing to their high nutrient content and enhanced health benefits.2
What are the health benefits of ancient grains?
To understand further, let us take a look at five of the ancient grains with unique nutrient profiles that offer a balanced, holistic diet when consumed in recommended proportions.2
Millets are coarse grains that include sorghum, finger millet, foxtail millet, kodo millet, little millet, pearl millet, proso millet, and barnyard millet. Millets have been consumed in India for centuries as a staple food. Currently, there is a renewed interest in millets particularly by the health experts and gluten-free market.
Health benefits of millets and millets flour
The goodness of millets can be found in any type of milled fractions (whole, brown, and polished grain flours)3. Whole grain flour is rich in minerals and insoluble dietary fibers. Brown grain flour has more protein content along with soluble dietary fibers. Present day food industry is banking on millets flour health benefits to prepare baby food, snacks, dietary food, and traditional sweets in large scale. People who have learned to eat this grain in recent years vouch for the potential health promoting traits such as calcium, dietary fiber, polyphenols, protein content, and vitamins4,5.
Packed with all the dietary flavonoids, consumption of millets helps in building immunity. No wonder, millets health benefits include protection against inflammation, asthma, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and high cholesterol levels4,5. Millet based foods are potential prebiotic and probiotics5. Their high-fiber content including pectin, cellulose, and hemicelluloses regulates blood glucose and cholesterol levels; improves bowel movement; and manages diabetes and obesity. At the same time, their high magnesium and potassium content keeps hypertension at bay4,5.
Style your own millet meal
Once anointed a ‘poor man’s food’, millets made a glorious comeback recently, and became a global symbol of ‘next-generation super foods’. All classes and age groups are keen to opt millets, now easily found in supermarkets, in the separate dedicated aisles of ‘health food’. Thanks to growing research and public awareness, the wisdom and glory of ancient millets have been dusted off.
Millets can be included in any diet with the use of right cooking technique and a good recipe. Eat millets as flour, parboiled, or as porridge with milk. From traditional meals of chapati, dosa, pastas to breads, muffins, and biscuits, this superfood will lend itself to every occasion or mood you are in. Try eating millet pancakes clubbed with yoghurt, fruits and vegetables for breakfast. You can also substitute millets for rice in vegetable khichdi. For calorie freaks, replace potatoes with millets to prepare that rich but nutritious gravy. It seems like nature has packed all its goodness in these tiny grains.
Though it belongs to the family of spinach, quinoa is a pseudo-cereal and is consumed as much the same manner as grains. It is gluten-free and highly recommended for people with gluten intolerance. It has received ample attention in recent years because of its exceptional nutritional value and potential health benefits. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) declared the year 2013 as “The International Year of Quinoa”, to promote its planting, development, and scientific research.
Like rice, quinoa can be cooked in water, milk, or any liquid stock; and then stirred in with some nuts, steamed vegetables, herbs, and spices. You can add quinoa to soups and salads to enjoy nutty flavour and heartiness. Quinoa’s nutritional benefits are comparable in calories to foods such as beans, maize, rice, or wheat. So, use quinoa flour in preparing breads, pancakes, or porridges and replace pasta with quinoa in pasta salad recipes.
The Magic in Quinoa
A rich reserve of minerals, vitamins, fatty acids, fibers, and antioxidants in this small, noble grain makes quinoa a super food with benefits against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and ageing. Its relatively high protein content than most other plant foods (except legumes) tempts the likes of both vegetarians and vegans. On one hand, the powerful antioxidants of quinoa can protect brain cells from oxidative damage, while its rich armamentarium of minerals and amino acids aids in boosting memory and reduces anxiety under stressful conditions. Phytohormones and phytoestrogens in quinoa are beneficial for menopause symptoms in women. In ancient Andean culture, quinoa and amaranth mix was especially given to the elites for its aphrodisiac and nutritional richness. And these are the reasons why the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has endorsed this overlooked quinoa to be part of astronaut diet during space missions. In fact, it is extremely difficult to compare millets versus quinoa health benefits. Both millets and quinoa are gluten free ancient grains that provide high protein, fiber, antioxidants, and magnesium. However, both grains differ in their amino acid composition. Quinoa, unlike other plant proteins contains all nine essential amino acids, while millets lack lysine, an essential amino acid necessary for our growth and development.
Often marketed as ‘golden grains’ or ‘past food for future people’, buckwheat has unique nutrient composition and food scientist are actively exploring this ancient pseudo-cereal. It has a rich reserve of flavonoids, polyphenols, carbohydrates, dietary fibers, proteins, essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. It is known for promising healing effects over heart disease, cancer, liver disease, hypertension, inflammation, diabetes, and atherosclerosis.6,7
You can prepare various food items like biscuits, breads, cakes, casseroles, cookies, crepes, porridge, pancakes, pasta-noodles, soups, and other confectionery products. Rich in thiamine (vitamin B1), niacin (vitamin B3), vitamin B6, vitamin K and fiber makes it a good choice for improving digestion, weight control and heart disease7. Buckwheat is naturally gluten-free. It has high protein content with well-balanced amino acid composition, and provides greater satiety with fewer calories. Its bioactive flavonoids improves health and immunity.
Love them or hate them for their signature gooey texture when cooked, oats are the most celebrated cereals worldwide for their potential health benefits. A good source of β-glucan, oats in your breakfast bowl can effectively control blood sugar levels and cholesterol8,9. According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), consumption of 3 g per day or more of β-glucan from oats or barley reduces your risk of heart diseases10.
Eat them in any form
Steel-cut or rolled or instant meal, oats in your diet offer fullness, benefit gut health, and help in weight loss with their rich repertoire of vitamins B and E, magnesium, and dietary fiber. Oats are the major source of phytonutrients such as methionine, betaine, choline, inositol, and folates, avenanthramides. Oats support the growth and maintenance of microorganisms of your gut. Oat bran enriched in dietary fibers is the major source of energy for gut bacteria, and the wide variety of phytochemicals further improve the microbiota composition11. Avenanthramides protect against oxidative stress, inflammation, and cancer.12 When not in a mood to eat, prepare facial masks from oats to soothe and shine your skin and get rid of inflammatory conditions such as eczema.
Though chia seeds have been consumed for more than 5000 years, the European Union has recently recognized it as a novel food in an attempt to make it widely popular and available. In the present era, chia seeds are perhaps more relevant than ever for their high nutritional value and fiber content13.
Chia seeds act as powerful deterrent to diabetes, inflammation, heart disease, hypertension, and cancer. The isoflavones in chia protect against cancer, heart attack and stroke, while phytoestrogens mimic natural estrogen and offer comfort to women during menopause and prevent post-menopause osteoporosis and other oestrogen-related disorders.14 The fiber in chia increases stool volume, improves bowel movements, smoothens digestion, and prevents diverticulosis.
These seeds are an important source of α-linolenic, linoleic acids, proteins (especially prolamins), insoluble fibers, vitamins, minerals (calcium, phosphorus and potassium), and antioxidants (chlorogenic and caffeic acids, quercetin or kaempferol). Little wonder that chia seeds and their by-products (such as oil and flour) are increasingly used as ingredients in different food products. Chia seeds lack gluten, and thus are suitable for patients with gluten intolerance.
The gastronomy experts endorse eating greater proportion of these ‘superfoods’ to promote sustainable lifestyle, health, and immunity.2,15 Actively embrace the diversity and benefits of ancient grains in the right proportions, be it rice, wheat, millets, even quinoa (if your budget has scope), as each grain brings its share of goodness.
Begin your journey today! Change the food you eat; Choose ancient grains.
- van der Kamp JW, Poutanen K, Seal CJ, Richardson DP. The HEALTHGRAIN definition of ‘whole grain.’ Food Nutr Res. 2014;58(1):22100. doi:10.3402/fnr.v58.22100
- Delcour J, Poutanen K, eds. Fibre-Rich and Wholegrain Foods: Improving Quality. Woodhead Pub; 2013.
- Nithiyanantham S, Kalaiselvi P, Mahomoodally MF, Zengin G, Abirami A, Srinivasan G. Nutritional and functional roles of millets-A review. J Food Biochem. 2019;43(7):e12859. doi:10.1111/jfbc.12859
- Devi PB, Vijayabharathi R, Sathyabama S, Malleshi NG, Priyadarisini VB. Health benefits of finger millet (Eleusine coracana L.) polyphenols and dietary fiber: a review. J Food Sci Technol. 2014;51(6):1021-1040. doi:10.1007/s13197-011-0584-9
- Sharma N, Niranjan K. Foxtail millet: Properties, processing, health benefits, and uses. Food Rev Int. 2018;34(4):329-363. doi:10.1080/87559129.2017.1290103
- Kim DW, Hwang IK, Lim SS, et al. Germinated Buckwheat extract decreases blood pressure and nitrotyrosine immunoreactivity in aortic endothelial cells in spontaneously hypertensive rats. Phytother Res. 2009;23(7):993-998. doi:10.1002/ptr.2739
- Boukid F, Folloni S, Sforza S, Vittadini E, Prandi B. Current Trends in Ancient Grains-Based Foodstuffs: Insights into Nutritional Aspects and Technological Applications: Ancient grains-based foodstuffs…. Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf. 2018;17(1):123-136. doi:10.1111/1541-4337.12315
- Li X, Cai X, Ma X, et al. Short- and Long-Term Effects of Wholegrain Oat Intake on Weight Management and Glucolipid Metabolism in Overweight Type-2 Diabetics: A Randomized Control Trial. Nutrients. 2016;8(9):E549. doi:10.3390/nu8090549
- Hou Q, Li Y, Li L, et al. The Metabolic Effects of Oats Intake in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2015;7(12):10369-10387. doi:10.3390/nu7125536
- Food and Drug Administration, HHS. Food labeling: health claims; soluble fiber from certain foods and risk of coronary heart disease. Interim final rule. Fed Regist. 2008;73(37):9938-9947.
- Cronin P, Joyce SA, O’Toole PW, O’Connor EM. Dietary Fibre Modulates the Gut Microbiota. Nutrients. 2021;13(5):1655. doi:10.3390/nu13051655
- Landberg R, Sunnerheim K, Dimberg LH. Avenanthramides as lipoxygenase inhibitors. Heliyon. 2020;6(6):e04304. doi:10.1016/j.heliyon.2020.e04304
- Melo D, Machado TB, Oliveira MBPP. Chia seeds: an ancient grain trending in modern human diets. Food Funct. 2019;10(6):3068-3089. doi:10.1039/c9fo00239a
- Jin F, Nieman DC, Sha W, Xie G, Qiu Y, Jia W. Supplementation of Milled Chia Seeds Increases Plasma ALA and EPA in Postmenopausal Women. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2012;67(2):105-110. doi:10.1007/s11130-012-0286-0
- Cheng A. Review: Shaping a sustainable food future by rediscovering long-forgotten ancient grains. Plant Sci. 2018;269:136-142. doi:10.1016/j.plantsci.2018.01.018