In the quest for the healthiest carbohydrates, where do grains fit? If they’re white and refined, they don’t stand a chance against the likes of fruits and vegetables — and that’s even if they’ve been enriched with vitamins and fibre to make them seem like whole grains.The so-called family of foods known as ancient grains, however, is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to refined wheat, corn and rice-based products, and for good reason: Not only do they add variety to our diets, but in many cases they are even more nutritious than their more popular cousins. The trick, however, is knowing what they are, and what to do when they make it into your shopping cart. Last week, we covered the benefits of quinoa and barley; today, we’ll look at some other popular grains. Spelt What it is If a grain could be characterized as enigmatic, spelt would probably qualify. Derived from a sub-species of wheat, spelt is a source of gluten and therefore an unsuitable choice for those with celiac disease (a medical condition that requires strict avoidance of all wheat, barley, rye and gluten-containing foods), or anyone following a gluten free diet. On the other hand, spelt may be tolerated by some with wheat allergies (think hives, swelling of the mouth or throat, or other allergic symptoms), though you should always consult with your allergist or physician before introducing it into your diet. While various websites claim that spelt is easier to digest than wheat, several studies conducted by food science experts at the University of Guelph suggest there is little to no difference between in digestibility between the two cereal grains. Moreover, the glycemic index (effect on blood sugar) of refined spelt was also found to be just as high as refined flour. How to use it Because spelt contains gluten, it can be used for baking with reasonable outcomes. More commonly, however, it’s found in manufactured foods, such as spelt breads, pastas, crackers and cereals. The bottom line? Like any grain, spelt is best taken in its whole grain form, and while nutritionally similar to flour, it might offer some relief for those with an allergy or intolerance to wheat (but not celiac disease). Buckwheat What it is Popular in parts of Asia and Eastern Europe, buckwheat is a grain with a long and diverse history. The main component of Japanese soba noodles, as the porridge-like dish used in Poland and Russia known as kasha, buckwheat is now becoming more popular in North America as a gluten-free grain that can potentially help with blood pressure and cholesterol control. Like quinoa, buckwheat is a surprisingly good source of protein (for a grain), supplying 4 grams per ounce (28 g), along with 3 g of fibre, and 16% of your daily magnesium needs. How to use it As mentioned, buckwheat can be used as a porridge, or as an alternative to rice, but perhaps the most fun way to add it to your diet is as a pancake. Yes, it might a little different from the fluffy, white pancakes from IHOP, but for those who are already converted to whole grain breads and pastas, buckwheat pancakes are an easy — and welcome–transition from the blood sugar roller coaster induced by a stack of white flour pancakes slathered in syrup. Amaranth What it is Yet another gluten free grain, the seed of the amaranth plant is a healthful choice for those who can’t tolerate wheat or gluten, or it can simply add diversity to the diet of those who can. Cultivated over 8,000 years ago by the Aztecs, amaranth is one of the best sources of iron among non-meat foods, making it particularly beneficial for vegetarians, women of childbearing years, or anyone with a history of low iron. It’s also slightly higher in fibre than most grains, including nutritional powerhouse quinoa. How to use it As with most ancient grains, amaranth should be washed before cooking, then simmered in roughly two parts water or stock (use low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock) to one part amaranth for about 20-25 minutes. It can then be used as a side dish, added to soups (try it with lentil soup), or even added to hamburgers instead of bread crumbs. There are also numerous amaranth-containing cereals on the market, including puffed and hot varieties. The bottom line If you’re new to ancient grains, don’t fret: With more and more products available on the market, introducing these once-intimidating foods into your diet has never been easier. But if you’re really looking to push the nutritional envelope, try making quinoa, barley, buckwheat or amaranth from scratch and substitute them for traditional rice or potatoes as a side dish. You will not only add quality to your diet, but also new tastes, textures, and flavours, too. – Jennifer Sygo is a dietitian in private practice at Cleveland Clinic Canada (clevelandclinic.ca) in Toronto.