Bakers Journal

The Final Proof: November 2011

October 31, 2011
By Jane Dummer RD

These grains have a long history of nourishing humanity, one that bakers serving health-conscious and gluten-intolerant consumers are rediscovering.

Quinoa is an excellent source of protein with a nutty, smoky flavour.


Over the past five years, I’ve been cooking and baking with ancient grains. Hot quinoa cereal and fresh berries for breakfast, amaranth flour in my baking recipes and chia wherever I can find a use for it.

Ancient grains are becoming more mainstream for a few reasons. Quinoa and amaranth have excellent nutrition profiles with the added bonus of being gluten-free. Kamut and spelt offer interesting textures and flavours to breads and crackers. Bulgar and wheat berries are ancient grains offering chewy textures and nutty flavours. Bulgar cooks up like rice and it is available in coarse, medium or fine grinds. Wheat berries are a true whole grain and the flour can be used in a variety of baking.

My favourite ancient grains are quinoa and amaranth. Quinoa and amaranth are two very old, high-protein plants that hail from South America. They are treated as grains although they have broad leaves, unlike the true grains and corn, which are grasses. Quinoa, however, is a cool weather crop and amaranth is a warm weather one. Both were held sacred in ancient Incan and Aztec cultures.

Quinoa has been one of the primary foods of the Incas for more than 5,000 years. The Incas referred to quinoa as “Mother Grain.” Most quinoa is grown in the Andes region in South America. The fact that quinoa will grow in extremely poor soil together with its great nutritional value makes it a true supergrain to feed the world.

Quinoa has been referred to as a superfood and is an excellent food source due to the nutrition it provides. Grown in Canada, quinoa is an excellent source of protein. That’s why I like it for a hot cereal: the combination of carbohydrates and protein keeps me energized all morning long. Quinoa is a great food for the celiac community and other people who follow a gluten-free diet. It is a good source of the B vitamins niacin and thiamine, and the mineral zinc. It has a nutty, smoky flavour, which makes it a delicious side dish for any meal. Quinoa flour is used by many artisan bakers in bread, cookies and muffins.

Amaranth, also called Chinese spinach and once considered a lowly weed in North America, is another rock star when it comes to nutrition. It can be grown in the warmer regions of Canada, for example, on the west coast’s Salt Spring Island. Not only does amaranth provide protein and three times more fibre than wheat, but it also contains iron, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamins A and C.

For many centuries, amaranth was used as a food source. For example, it was considered a dietary staple for the pre-Colombian peoples who inhabited Mexico. Now, it is commonly grown in Mexico, Peru and Nepal. Sixty species of amaranth exist in the world. Certain varieties are considered vegetables and are grown strictly for their leaves. Others are grown only for their seeds. Because of its high nutritional value, amaranth is also becoming more popular as a food and as an ingredient in both Canada and the United States. Amaranth is also gluten-free and is used by many artisan bakers and commercial bakers to create products such as cakes and muffins for the celiac and gluten-free population.

Next on my ancient grains list is millet. I’ve had to get past it being the star grain in bags of birdseed. This tiny grain isn’t just for the birds, as it is gluten-free and packed with fibre and magnesium. The seed must be hulled before we can eat it. It is so versatile it can be used in anything from hot cereals (quinoa, you’re still my favourite) to savoury side dishes. Creative bakers are using the flour form to develop a variety of gluten-free products.

There’s nothing wrong with plain old wheat – it’s a staple of the Canadian diet. However, curious dietitians, cooks and amateur bakers like me are drawing inspiration from the history books and cooking up ancient grains to add texture, variety and extra nutrition to our meals. Which ancient grains are next on your list?

  Further Resources


Jane Dummer, RD, is a leading dietitian for the Canadian food and nutrition industry. Jane offers services specializing in agri-food, functional foods and food safety. For more information, visit .

Print this page


Stories continue below