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Ancient grains: The best thing since sliced bread?

Ancient grains such as quinoa, amaranth and spelt are turning up in the bread aisle. They're healthful and tasty, but don't always live up to their claims.

February 19, 2011|By Elena Conis, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Ancient grains may sound like something you'd find in a museum or at an archaeological site.

But these days, they're turning up in the bread aisle. At markets from Whole Foods to Vons, shoppers can choose from a growing number of breads made with so-called ancient grains, including quinoa, amaranth, spelt and Kamut (a patented variety of wheat).

Claims about the breads abound: They're said to be packed with whole grains, protein, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, and they're supposedly safe for people with wheat allergies or gluten intolerance, also known as celiac disease. But although the ancient grains are undoubtedly healthful and tasty, not all of the claims hold up.

The idea of making modern bread out of old-style grains isn't new. For decades, Glendale-based Food for Life has been making Ezekiel 4:9 Bread, inspired by the list of grains in the Bible passage for which the bread is named; the bread contains wheat, barley, rye, oats, millet, corn and rice.

Newer products assert that they're made with grains that "are true to their original form," as Trader Joe's Ancient Grain Bread (made with quinoa, oats, amaranth, Kamut, millet, teff and barley) states on its label.

The ancient grains — confusingly — are not all grains. Grains are technically grasses. By that standard, Kamut, spelt and wheat are all grains, but quinoa and amaranth are not. Still, the common term "grain" has stuck for all of them.

"Grains" such as quinoa, amaranth, spelt and Kamut are called "ancient" because they've been around, unchanged, for millennia. By contrast, corn, rice and modern varieties of wheat (such as hard white wheat and hard red spring wheat) have been bred selectively over thousands of years to look and taste much different from their distant ancestors, said Mian Riaz, director of the Food Protein Research and Development Center at Texas A&M University. Modern corn, for example, bears little resemblance to wild corn from long ago.

However, the fact that they're little changed from antiquity doesn't necessarily make the ancient grains more nutritious than modern ones, said Joanne Slavin, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota.

The amount of protein, for example, in hard red spring wheat is comparable to the amounts found in spelt and quinoa — which means breads made from the grains differ little in protein content too. Case in point: Wonder Stoneground 100% Whole Wheat Bread contains 3 grams of protein per slice, and Rudi's Organic Spelt Ancient Grain Bread contains 4 grams. Because the typical adult should be getting more than 60 grams of protein a day, a single gram here or there doesn't matter that much.

Ancient grains aren't always safer, either. People with wheat allergies or sensitivities certainly can't lower their guard, said Dr. Suzanne Teuber, professor of internal medicine, rheumatology and allergy at UC Davis.

"There has been a lot of misinformation about spelt and Kamut being safe for patients with celiac disease or wheat allergy, when this is not the case," she said.

Amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, millet and teff, however, are free of gluten, said Marion Groetch, senior dietitian at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute. This makes these grains safe for people with celiac disease.

Like any grain, when eaten whole, the ancient grains are rich in fiber and an array of antioxidants and phytochemicals that are distinct from those found in fruits and vegetables, said Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian in Burbank and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn.

Frechman recommends reading bread labels carefully; some breads contain flour made from the ancient grains, whereas others contain the more nutrient-rich whole grains themselves. Still others contain mostly whole wheat flour, with ancient grains only making an appearance way down on the list of ingredients.

The label on Trader Joe's Ancient Grain Bread boasts 3 grams of fiber and 23 grams of whole grains per slice. Arnold Natural Ancient Grains Bread is in the same ballpark. A sandwich made from either one provides most of the three to four daily ounces of whole grains recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (according to the agency, a slice of bread is equivalent to an ounce of grain) and about one-sixth of the daily recommended amount of fiber.

For those who can enjoy them, ancient grain breads can be a real step forward. "All of these grains and seeds are wonderful additions to our modern food supply," Teuber said. "I've tasted some fantastic breads with some of these grains and seeds."

Conis writes for The Times.

health@latimes.com

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