Ancient grains are the current rock stars of the whole-grain world. Loosely defined as grains that have remained largely unchanged for several hundred years—including quinoa, sorghum, amaranth, wild rice, buckwheat, spelt and kamut—these foods power the body with protein, fiber, iron, manganese, copper and zinc. They have the added benefit of sustainability—the crops thrive with lower levels of pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation, reducing their carbon footprint.
Consumers have been reaching for ancient grains with more frequency of late. According to the 2015 Whole Grains Consumer Insights Survey from Oldways Whole Grains Council, one in five consumers bought ancient and sprouted grains that January and nearly two-thirds chose whole grains the majority of the time.
“Ancient grains are packed with a variety of nutrients to support growing students,” says Cameron Wells, associate director of clinical dietetics for The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to improve the healthfulness of school lunches. She sees them fulfilling the K-12 whole-grain requirement in everything from quinoa veggie burgers to lentil chili with a side of amaranth.
Quinoa is a fixture on the menu as an entree, side dish and salad bar staple at The Village School in Eugene, Ore., and the MUSE School in Calabasas, Calif., the latter of which adopted a completely plant-based menu starting in the 2014-15 school year. Novato Unified Public School District in Novato, Calif., serves a Greek Quinoa, and a Southwest Energy Burger made with quinoa is on the menu at Walker Jones Education Campus in Washington, D.C.
Jose Manuel Martinez, senior executive chef of Residential and Student Service Programs at the University of California, Berkeley, is taking advantage of a wide variety of ancient grains to serve between 10,000 and 14,000 students daily. Amaranth, farro and quinoa frequently are available as a salad bar option, tossed with roasted vegetables and vinaigrette. Students can add brown rice, farro and quinoa to customize items at the burrito bar, and at Asian stations the grains show up in a vegan fried rice with quinoa or farro as well as a quinoa stir-fry. Recently Martinez created a hearty sausage jambalaya substituting farro for the usual rice.
“At first the students were just looking at [these foods] funny, but little by little we are seeing them changing their attitude,” says Martinez. Introducing the grains in familiar formats helps win them over, he adds. What’s more, “it’s a healthier option and our students are looking for nutritious foods. For me, I also like that these add to the complexity of the menu items,” Martinez says.
Ancient grains also are gaining favor with guests at Senior Living Residences’ 12 Boston-area locations. That spurred Kim Smith, corporate director of dining experience, to organize a chef-training session focused on the history of ancient grains and recipes suitable for the senior population.
“You are talking about the elderly, who did not grow up on these grains,” says Smith, who plans to add a broader range of options to her menus. “Our residents are really becoming excited about these ingredients, and so are our chefs.”