WASHINGTON — The Incas ate quinoa, and barley made up a good portion of gladiators’ diets during the Roman empire. Such stories provide material for ancient grain marketing efforts. Now, bioavailability studies are needed to back up ancient grain health benefits, said Julie Miller Jones, Ph.D., professor emeritus of foods and nutrition at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., and a member of the Grain Foods Foundation scientific advisory board.
“With all of these, I don’t think we have very good data on their bioavailability,” she said of ancient grains. “We have a lot of romance copy, but we are more limited on data on how (bioavailable) these are.”
She gave millet as an example.
“Millet has iron in it, but it’s really, really tightly bound, and (the iron) is even more poorly absorbed than iron from wheat,” she said.
Processing potentially may affect nutrition. Quinoa is an example as it is high in protein. Quinoa also has saponins on the outside of the grain that have a slightly bitter taste. Soaking the grains removes the saponins.
“The amount you soak will reduce the saponins, but if you soak the grain a long time, will you affect the nutrient content?” Dr. Jones said.
Ancient grains undoubtedly improve health outcomes in some cases. Amaranth, which is 15% protein, has been formulated into corn maize porridge to increase iron absorption among Africans in need of iron, she said. Ancient grains also may improve the nutritional quality of gluten-free items.
“I like to eat ancient grains, but I think we need to look at them, in my view, as something to make things more interesting, particularly for people who can’t eat wheat, barley and rye because of celiac disease,” Dr. Jones said. “They (gluten-free ancient grains) can make many of those products much better because they provide fiber.”
Quinoa’s fiber content ranges from 11% to 13%, which is similar to the fiber content in wheat, she said. Quinoa almost always is eaten in whole grain form as well.
“Maybe we’ll find that the fiber in quinoa has some properties like the beta-glucan from oats and barley,” Dr. Jones said. “Those are the kinds of things that would be fun to find out. At this point, we don’t necessarily know what those are.”
Thus, the need for research.
“I would say there is more we don’t know than we do,” Dr. Jones said. “We know that populations like the Aztecs used amaranth. We know the Incas used quinoa. We know it nourished those people, but we don’t know exactly how well.”