It’s oxymoronic to refer to an ancient grain as “new,” but the endless search for that next diet level tends to unearth lost nutritional gems from our collective history. Such is the case with the ancient grain freekeh.
What Is Freekeh?
A cereal grain made from green durum wheat, freekeh has been a staple of North African and Middle Eastern cuisine for centuries. In fact, a freekeh recipe was discovered in a 13th-century cookbook found in present-day Baghdad.
“While there is no universally-defined ‘ancient grain,’ the term generally refers to a grain that has been relatively untouched or unchanged throughout history,” explains Laura Ligos, MBA, RDN, CSSD. “The main difference is that ancient grains are not refined — like white flour or other carbs like crackers, cookies, etc.”
The process for harvesting freekeh involves cutting durum wheat while it’s still green and its seeds are soft. After it’s dried, piles of the wheat are burned; since the seeds are moist, they survive while the straw and chaff turn to ash. The roasted wheat is then threshed and its small seeds cracked into tiny pieces. In its edible form, freekeh resembles bulgur.
The fact that freekeh is harvested while still “young” allows it to retain the highest levels of nutrition (as well as flavor, which is nutty). This means that it contains more protein, vitamins, and minerals than in its more mature state. It’s also low in fat, and a good source of protein (1/4 cup of uncooked freekeh offers up to 8 g, compared with quinoa’s 6 g), and dietary fiber, plus it delivers some iron and calcium. Finally, it boasts a low glycemic index, and is rich in prebiotics.
Is freekeh low-carb?
Freekeh is often described as “low carb,” but you should be wary of that designation. “It depends on what you consider ‘low carb’ since there’s no real definition,” says Ligos. “In 100 grams of freekeh there are 60 grams of carbohydrates — so many would say that’s not low carb. But it also depends on what the rest of your day’s eating entails. ‘Low carb’ doesn’t equate to health anyway so it just depends on the individual.”
Openfit Nutrition Manager Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD, would also advise against cutting a food simply because it’s a carb. “Freekeh is not low carb, but it does have a lot of fiber. Oftentimes when you’re cutting out carbs you’re cutting out fiber, so going ‘low carb’ isn’t necessarily healthy. What we’re trying to do is steer people toward healthier carbs — like choosing whole grains vs. refined grains.”
Is freekeh gluten-free?
Unlike quinoa, freekeh is derived from wheat grains and therefore contains gluten.
Freekeh vs. quinoa
We’ve already determined at least two key differences between freekeh and quinoa: Quinoa is gluten-free, while freekeh has higher protein content. But how else are the two popular grains different? “Measurably, freekeh is marginally higher in fiber and lower in fat,” says Ligos. “But in the grand scheme of things they’re not really all that different.”
How to Cook Freekeh
There’s little to fear when it comes to freekeh preparation — it doesn’t require any fancy skills or specialty cookware. Says Ligos: “Just as you would with rice, add water, a pinch of salt, simmer, and wait for all the water to be absorbed.” She goes on to add that freekeh is an easy substitute for rice, quinoa, or pasta, and is a healthy starch/carb to balance out a plate of protein and veggies.
“I think we’re going to be seeing more of these ancient grains on restaurant menus,” says Giancoli. “I don’t know if it will be a common household dish, but certainly ancient grains are trending, and we’re going to be seeing more and more of them.”
As for whether it plays well with diets such as keto or raw food, Ligos suggests that decision ultimately rests with you. “I’m not one for fad diets, and anything can fit with a diet plan if tolerated by the individual,” she claims. “So my rule is if you can digest it well, you enjoy it, and it helps you reach your goals… then it fits!”