All the unusual grains that are sometimes touted as ‘supergrains’ can make a claim to interesting origins: some are marketed as ‘ancient grains’, with us since biblical times, or secrets of the Aztecs, Incas or Egyptians. But are they really special?
Most have some aspect that sets them apart — at least to those charged with marketing them. Some are gluten-free or suitable for people with allergies to wheat, or there may be a nutritional aspect, such as a higher fibre level or better fat profile.
Two of them (quinoa and amaranth) have more complete protein than other grains, which is important in countries where there are few other protein sources and grain forms the main part of the diet. In Australia, however, this would be important for very strict vegetarians (vegans), but for most of us it’s of no real nutritional importance as our diets are generally awash with high-quality protein from animal sources.
All these supergrains qualify as wholegrains, and including them in the mix of your diet can only increase its variety and the range of phytochemicals you’re eating. But are they magic? For most of us, no — just useful, interesting wholegrains.
Quinoa Pronounced keen-wa, this grain is high in protein (about 15%) compared with many others and is also high in fibre, with about 8%. It originated in South America, where it was grown by the Incas — which is interesting and sounds good in the marketing, but it doesn’t confer any special properties. It’s also gluten-free.
Salba Another grain from the Americas, salba was once used by the Aztecs. It’s high in fibre, minerals and the plant form of omega-3 fats, a healthy type of fat thought to help prevent heart disease. There are big claims that salba can reduce blood pressure, balance blood sugar and improve heart health, but not enough high-quality studies have been published in medical journals to draw firm conclusions.
Amaranth The Aztecs used amaranth grain, and it spread to other parts of the world such as Africa, India, China and Nepal. It’s high in protein and the essential amino acid lysine, which is often missing in more common cereal crops. Amaranth is also high in calcium and iron, compared with other cereals, and contains about 5–9% fats, which are mostly unsaturated. And it’s a source of squalene — a phytochemical found in olives and shark livers. Squalene is being investigated as one of the interesting components of the Mediterranean diet. Amaranth is gluten-free.
Millet There are numerous varieties of millet, grown in Africa and India for thousands of years, where it’s still an important food crop. In other countries it’s mainly grown as animal feed (and birdseed). Millet is a nutritious cereal and, compared with other common cereals, is higher in fat and energy (both important in developing countries) and also higher in iron and calcium. Millet is gluten-free.
Teff This Ethiopian grain is used in a traditional sour bread called ‘injera’, a bit like a large spongy pancake. It's the smallest grain in the world — 150 teff grains weigh about the same as one wheat grain — which may explain its name; teff is thought to come from the Amharic word for ‘lost’. Teff is gluten-free, and a good source of protein and fibre. It has more calcium and iron than common grains, but the high iron level isn’t always found when tested. It’s thought the iron may be due to the Ethiopian dust that can cling to unwashed tiny teff grains.
Kamut This is a registered trademark for a relative of durum wheat. Marketers do a good job of romanticising its history: after World War II, a US serviceman found seeds in an Egyptian tomb and posted them home to Montana. After a few false starts, some leftover seed in a jar was propagated and trademarked ’kamut’. It’s unlikely the grain sent by the airman really came from a tomb; it’s more likely the grain was grown over the years in Egypt by small farmers with diverse crops.
Kamut is higher in protein than regular wheat, but it’s not gluten-free. However, claims about the suitability of kamut for people who are allergic to wheat are controversial: www.kamut.com backs up its claims with a research paper on its website, but the only research we could find in the medical literature concluded that kamut doesn’t have a different allergenic potential from wheat. If you have a serious wheat allergy, consult your doctor before experimenting with grains such as kamut.
Spelt This relative of normal bread wheat is thought to have originated in Iran and Europe. Spelt has a tough hull that has to be removed as part of the milling process, which is why it fell out of favour in modern breadmaking. It’s somewhat higher in fibre than other grains. There have also been controversial claims about spelt's suitability for people who can’t eat wheat. It’s not gluten-free, but it’s been suggested the protein in it is more digestible than regular wheat. In the US, bread shops have been forced to stop selling spelt bread as ‘wheat-free’. The Coeliac Society in Australia doesn't recommend spelt as a suitable grain for coeliacs.