What’s all the fuss about ancient grains?

You can’t have failed to notice the recent media hype given to a group of little grains, commonly referred to as ‘ancient grains’ and which are frequently touted as being considerably more nutritious than traditional grains such as wheat, oats and rye – more than likely to justify their often considerable price tags. These trendy grains are now a selling point for many products on supermarket shelves and are commonplace on restaurant and café menus.

But with so much conflicting information out there, do you really get more bang for your buck when investing in ancient grains over traditional grains like oats, wheat and rye? We’ve compared the nutrient profiles of some of the most well-known traditional and ancient grains to find out which group packs a superior nutritional punch!

But first, what do we mean by ‘ancient’ grains?

Ancient grains have actually been around for years but have only recently enjoyed a surge in popularity, in part due to increasing numbers of people looking for alternatives to wheat. Many of these grains, including quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat aren’t even ‘true’ grains but actually belong to the seed family and are known as pseudo-cereals. Many people think pseudo-cereals are nutritionally superior to the traditional grain, but they actually offer similar benefits to ‘true’ grains and are used in much the same way.

So do ancient grains really contain more protein?

One of the most common misconceptions is that ancient grains have much higher levels of protein than traditional grains, but they’re actually very similar.  Whilst ancient grains quinoa and amaranth do indeed top the list for protein content in our grain comparison, traditional wheat comes in a close third with a hefty 13.4g of protein per 100g, closely followed by rye.

Another misconception is that quinoa is the only grain to contain the complete spectrum of amino acids – in fact, all grains contain complete amino acids with quinoa having only slightly higher levels!

Did you know? Quinoa is pronounced ‘keen-wah.’

What about fat?

Traditional grains steal the show on this one with brown rice, rye, barley and wheat being lower in fat than many ancient grains. And there’s further good news for wheat, with recent Australian research showing that Australian adults with the highest intakes of core grain foods, including breads and breakfast cereals made from wheat, had a similar waist circumference and no difference in Body Mass Index (BMI) compared to those with the lowest core grain food intake(1) While oats top the list with the highest total fat levels in our comparison, much of this is healthy fat.

Surely ancient grains have more fibre than wheat or rye?

Again, traditional grains top the list with rye containing a whopping 14.6g of fibre per 100g, followed by wheat and barley, whilst ancient grains sorghum, quinoa and amaranth lag behind with around half the fibre content of rye.

Many people are surprised to learn that the leading sources of fibre in the Australian diet are actually breads and breakfast cereals, most of which are wheat based.(2) What’s more, whole grain wheat, oats and rye can help to promote good gut health due to their prebiotic fibres(3,4)  which encourage growth and activity of  health promoting bacteria in the gut.(5-7)

What about wheat?

Contrary to common perception, wheat is a particularly nutritious grain, even when compared to ancient grains like quinoa. Although wheat’s taken a hammering in recent years with many people avoiding gluten or cutting out carbs, this nutritious grain is easily accessible and readily found in many breads and breakfast cereals.  And several recent studies have shown that individuals who regularly consume whole grains (mostly wheat based) are at a reduced risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes, compared to those who eat less.(8-10)

To give you an idea of how two of the most well-known grains stack up, we’ve compared their nutrient profiles below…

Wheat (g per 100g) Quinoa (g per 100g)
Protein 13.4 14.1
Fat 1.4 6.1
Fibre 12.2 7
Carbohydrate 60.1 64.1
Iron 11.0 4.6

 Some grains, including amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa aren’t actually grains at all but belong to the seed family and are occasionally referred to as pseudo-cereals.

So what’s the verdict?

The takeaway message is that whilst many ancient grains do offer certain nutritional benefits, traditional grains offer comparable nutrients and in some cases have a more substantial nutrient profile. But whether you’re a fan of traditional or ancient grains or enjoy both, what’s important is ensuring we eat core grain foods 3-4 times a day and make at least half either high fibre or whole grain.  Our infographic shows why we should be eating more whole grains…

To benefit from the range of nutrients both traditional and ancient grains offer, mix it up every once in a while and enjoy a variety of grains as part of a balanced diet. And for recipe inspiration using both traditional and trendy grains, visit our website.


  1. Fayet-Moore F, Petocz P, McConnell A, Tuck K, Mansour M. The Cross-Sectional Association between Consumption of the Recommended Five Food Group “Grain (Cereal)”, Dietary Fibre and Anthropometric Measures among Australian Adults. Nutrients. 2017;9(2):157.
  2. ABS. Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results – Foods and Nutrients, 2011-12. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014.
  3. Shewry PR, Hey SJ. The contribution of wheat to human diet and health. Food Energy Secur. 2015;4(3):178-202.
  4. Fuller S, Beck E, Salman H, Tapsell L. New Horizons for the Study of Dietary Fiber and Health: A Review. Plant foods for human nutrition. 2016.
  5. Christensen EG, Licht TR, Kristensen M, Bahl MI. Bifidogenic effect of whole-grain wheat during a 12-week energy-restricted dietary intervention in postmenopausal women. European journal of clinical nutrition. 2013;67(12):1316-21.
  6. Stevenson L, Phillips F, O’Sullivan K, Walton J. Wheat bran: its composition and benefits to health, a European perspective. International journal of food sciences and nutrition. 2012;63(8):1001-13.
  7. Jones JM, Peña RJ, Korczak R, Braun HJ. CIMMYT Series on Carbohydrates, Wheat, Grains, and Health: Carbohydrates, Grains, and Wheat in Nutrition and Health: An Overview. Part I. Role of Carbohydrates in Health. Cereal Foods World. 2015;60(5):224-33.
  8. Brouns FJPH, van Buul VJ, Shewry PR. Does wheat make us fat and sick? Journal of Cereal Science. 2013;58(2):209-15.
  9.    Aune D, Norat T, Romundstad P, Vatten LJ. Whole grain and refined grain consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and dose–response meta-analysis of cohort studies. European Journal of Epidemiology. 2013;28(11):845-58.
  10. Wu H, Flint AJ, Qi Q, van Dam RM, Sampson LA, Rimm EB, et al. Association Between Dietary Whole Grain Intake and Risk of Mortality: Two Large Prospective Studies in US Men and Women. JAMA Intern Med. 2015.

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