Whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet. Evidence shows that consumption of whole grains may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and is associated with the maintenance of a healthful body weight.

Whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet. Evidence shows that consumption of whole grains may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and is associated with the maintenance of a healthful body weight.

Although the most commonly consumed grains in the United States are wheat, rice, corn and oats, other whole grains are growing in popularity. These less well-known grains are not new and have been around for centuries. They are often referred to as ancient grains, because they are largely unchanged throughout time, whereas modern grains have been selectively bred during the years so they now bear little resemblance to the original plant.

Grains are considered whole grain if they include the entire grain seed, or kernel, which consists of the bran, germ and endosperm.

How do you know if you are buying a whole grain product? Check the ingredient list for the words “whole grain” or “whole” before the grain’s name. Products that have the FDA Whole Grain Health Claim must contain at least 51 percent whole grain by weight. Look for foods that have at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving. These foods may have a Whole Grain Stamp. Remember, “multigrain” doesn’t necessarily mean whole grain.

Ancient whole grains can provide a variety of flavors, textures and appearance to help you incorporate more whole grains into your diet. They are known for their higher protein, fiber and certain vitamin and mineral content. Following are some different varieties and some tips on how to use them.

Quinoa: You can substitute quinoa in dishes that are traditionally made with rice. It is readily available and pairs well with other flavors. A native plant from South America, there are many varieties and the quinoa you buy might be red, black, yellow or white. Quinoa can taste bitter, but rinsing it before cooking can help remove the bitterness. Quinoa is completely cooked when a small spiral emerges from the grain. Quinoa is gluten free and higher in protein than traditional grains.

Amaranth: This grain lends a creamy texture to hot breakfast cereals or soups. Amaranth should not be overcooked and will have a sticky texture the consistency of cream of wheat that is slightly bitter. Amaranth grains will still have a “pop” to them, even when fully cooked, making them a favorite for adding to breads, muffins and crackers. Amaranth also can be popped in a pan, like corn kernels, for a tasty snack. Amaranth is gluten free and a protein powerhouse.

Millet: Commonly used as bird feed in Western countries, millet is a term used to describe several different tiny round seeds from members of the grass family. Similar to wild rice, this grain has a nutty flavor and can be combined with veggies, cooked in milk or incorporated into hot cereal, soups and stews. It also is good in baked goods as flour or added whole. Millet is gluten-free and an excellent source of magnesium and phosphorus.

Farro: This grain must be soaked first before cooking. Farro has a nutty flavor and a firm but chewy texture that makes a good substitute for small pasta. It can be served hot or cold and can be prepared in large batches and frozen for later use. It is not gluten-free.

Spelt: Spelt is a relative of wheat and therefore not gluten-free, but many people intolerant of wheat can eat spelt. Spelt berries or flakes can be eaten as cereal or ground and substituted for wheat flout in breads and baked goods.

Kamut: Also a relative to wheat but with a larger kernel, Kamut is not gluten-free. Kamut has a sweet, buttery flavor and is chewy when cooked. It may be made into flakes or flours.

Teff: A native grain of Ethiopia, teff has a lightly sweet, molasses-like flavor. These tiny seeds can be ground into flours, cooked and eaten as cereal, or sprinkled over vegetables or soups to provide a texture similar to poppy seeds. Teff is gluten-free and a good source of calcium.

Barley: This is the oldest of the ancient grains and the fourth most important cereal crop in the world. It’s also one you are probably familiar with. Barley is often added to soups and stews providing a chewy, nutty flavor. However, the pearled barley that is commonly found in the grocery store is lacking the outer bran layer, a major source of its fiber. Look for hulled or whole grain barley, instead. Barley is not gluten-free.

Buckwheat: This is actually a fruit seed-related rhubarb from Central Asia. It is commonly used as a flour in pancakes, in Soba noodles or as an alternative to rice. Buckwheat is gluten-free.

Sorghum: Commonly used in livestock feeds in Western cultures, sorghum is a versatile grain with origins in Africa. Sorghum seeds are mild and lightly sweet and can be ground into a gluten-free flour or flaked or popped, like corn.

Triticale: This is a hybrid of wheat and rye native to Scotland. Triticale usually is ground into flour for bread or eaten as a cereal.

When cooking these ancient grains, it is important to have the correct liquid-to-grain ratio. Amaranth, for example, requires at least six cups of water per cup of grain. Check the package for directions. Cooking time varies from just a few minutes to an hour or longer. Grains can be cooked and then frozen for quick use later. For recipes and more information on cooking these grains, visit wholegrainscouncil.org.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.