By Dr. Mercola
It's no secret that the most popularly consumed whole grains on the planet continue to be wheat, corn and rice, but today I want to talk to you about an ancient grain called farro. Actually, farro is not a single type of grain; rather, it is a term used to describe three different grains within the wheat family:1
- Einkorn, also known as farro piccolo
- Emmer, also known as farro medio
- Spelt, also known as farro grande
Farro originated in Mesopotamia, and emmer was a diet staple of the ancient Egyptians. As such, farro is one of the oldest grains, dating back some 6,000 years. After Julius Caesar invaded Egypt in 30 B.C., farro found a home in Italy, where it is still cultivated today and enjoys a wide following. Over the years, farro has moved from the rustic tables of Tuscany to high-profile restaurants around the world, landing in home kitchens alongside popular whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa.
Farro is versatile and can be transformed into rich risottos or incorporated into grain bowls or salads. With its nutty flavor and satisfying chew, it packs a nutritional punch due to its high fiber, protein and antioxidant levels. Because most people eat too many grains, I recommend you eat farro only occasionally. Just the same, it's worthwhile to look further into the characteristics and benefits of this enduring ancient grain.
Important Considerations When Choosing Farro
Perhaps you've already experienced some of the confusion over the many names for farro. In different regions and countries, the names einkorn, emmer and spelt are used interchangeably, making it difficult to determine what you are buying or eating. Even chefs and native Italians can be confused about which is which when it comes to farro.
Emmer, a small light-brown grain with a visible bran, is the most common type of farro found in the U.S. and Europe. It's a harder grain than einkorn and is often confused with spelt, which has nearly similar benefits and comparable taste.2 Farro is sold dry and requires cooking to achieve its characteristic soft, chewy texture. Dry farro looks like wheat berries. Once cooked, however, it resembles barley. Furthermore, just as there are three farro grain types, it is also processed and sold in three varieties:3
- Whole grain
- Semi-pearled (semi-perlato)
- Pearled (perlato)
To ensure maximum nutrition, I recommend eating only whole grain farro because it retains the healthy germ and bran that deliver its significant health benefits. Many of the varieties you'll find in grocery stores are semi-pearled or pearled, which means part, or all, of the germ and bran has been removed, respectively.
As you might expect, similar to white rice, semi-pearled and pearled farro have shorter cooking times than their whole-grain counterpart. For that reason, they are most often chosen for home use, as well as in some restaurants. Whereas semi-pearled and pearled farro can be prepared in 20 to 25 minutes, whole grain farro must be soaked overnight and cooked nearly twice as long — generally 45 to 50 minutes, or until it reaches your preferred degree of chewiness.
Finally, you may notice farro has something called bran grades: long, medium and cracked. It is best to buy either long or medium, both of which indicate the grain remains uncracked. As such, the farro will generally be fresher and retain the nutrients that often can be lost when the grain is cracked.4 With so many options available, make sure you read farro packages carefully to ensure you are getting the whole grain in its unprocessed form.
Four Health Benefits of Farro
If you like grains with a nutty flavor and chewy texture, you'll probably enjoy farro. It is versatile in that it can be eaten alone or blended into salads, soups and stews. As a breakfast food, you might like to try it with cream and fruit. Whatever you decide, farro is a great alternative to barley, buckwheat, quinoa and rice. Farro also tends to absorb the flavors of spices added to it during cooking, opening the way for culinary experimentation. Some of the outstanding health benefits of farro include:5,6
1. High fiber content: Because farro is a whole grain, meaning its bran and germ are intact, it is quite filling. As such, it will make you feel fuller and keep you satisfied longer than refined grains. As you probably know, fiber-rich diets are good for your heart and your digestion, as well as maintaining your blood-sugar balance.
The recommended daily serving of fiber for women is around 25 grams, while men should strive for at least 35 grams; however, most Americans consume only about 16 grams of fiber a day.7 Because I believe those benchmarks are low, I suggest you target 50 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories consumed.
A half-cup serving of farro contains roughly 7 to 8 grams of fiber, which is more than four times the amount of fiber found in white rice or a slice of white bread.8 I'll talk more about the importance of fiber later but, for now, know that a high-fiber diet can help reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Because fiber adds bulk to your stools, it also helps to resolve and prevent constipation.
If you are an endurance athlete looking to sustain your energy levels through intense workouts or training events, you might consider farro. It is an excellent fuel for sustained energy because its complex carbohydrates break down more slowly than those from refined grains.
2. Excellent source of plant-based protein: If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you'll be happy to know that farro is an excellent source of plant-based protein. It contains about the same amount of protein as some beans or legumes and more than some other whole grains. A half-cup of whole grain farro contains 12 grams of protein, nearly identical to the protein content of quinoa, and more than brown rice.
3. High in antioxidants: Although you may think fruits and vegetables are the only foods high in antioxidants, unprocessed grains also provide them. In particular, antioxidants called lignans that are present in farro are known to reduce inflammation. Plant-based lignans are heavily consumed by cultures eating a traditional Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to promote longevity and improve heart health.9
4. Provides important vitamins and minerals: Farro contains multiple B vitamins, particularly vitamin B2 (riboflavin) and B3 (niacin), both of which support your metabolism by breaking down and converting carbohydrates and proteins into energy.10 Both are water-soluble, meaning your body doesn't store them, so you must get them from your diet.
Farro also provides minerals such as iron, magnesium and zinc that could be easily overlooked in vegetarian or vegan diets due to the absence of animal products that provide them. As you may know, iron helps prevent anemia and affects your energy levels. Magnesium is a crucial electrolyte that helps prevent muscle cramps and PMS, while fighting headaches and aiding digestion. Zinc is a vital nutrient that supports your immune system and is needed for healthy cell division.
Who Should Avoid Farro?
Some have suggested you can safely consume ancient grains even if you have a gluten-related sensitivity. Others claim that soaking farro overnight purportedly makes it easier to digest due to its lower gluten content. While farro may contain lower levels of gluten than other wheat varieties, you must remember that it is still part of the wheat family.11 Because farro contains gluten, you definitely should not eat farro if you have celiac disease.
Because of its lower gluten levels, if you suffer from a mild wheat sensitivity, you may find farro somewhat easier to digest. That said, I still recommend avoiding farro if you have even a mild gluten intolerance, mainly due to the availability of other options. Grains similar to farro that do not contain gluten include amaranth, buckwheat and wild rice.
The Importance of Fiber to Good Health
Since farro is a good source, I'll take this opportunity to restate my beliefs about the importance of dietary fiber. Although you may think grains such as farro are an excellent source, dietary fiber from high-quality, preferably organic, vegetables is even better.
Fiber promotes overall good health and longevity, and has been shown to reduce your disease risk because it feeds and promotes the spread of healthy gut bacteria. Fiber, especially insoluble fiber, can help you ensure regular, healthy bowel movements. If you are constipated, the presence of fiber will help soften your stools for easier and more comfortable elimination. If, on the other hand, you suffer from loose stools, fiber will effectively give them better shape and form.
I recommend you do not rely solely on grain-based fiber sources, mainly because grains can compromise your health in several ways, including raising your insulin and leptin levels and increasing your risk of glyphosate exposure. Processed grains are particularly harmful, and are second only to refined sugar and fructose in terms of promoting chronic disease.
As much as possible, get your fiber from organic vegetables, nuts and seeds. If you are able, grow your own vegetables, or buy those locally grown. If you still are not able to achieve the recommended fiber intake of 50 grams per 1,000 calories consumed, supplementing with organic psyllium husk can help bring you closer to the ideal amount. Avoid non-organic psyllium because it's heavily sprayed with pesticides and herbicides.
If you've not yet had a chance to experiment with it, find out how to prepare farro on your stove top, in the oven or using a slow cooker. Three cooking methods are described on Cook the Story's website.12 Once you're confident you can cook farro, you might be interested in one of my favorite recipes for Cold Tomato Soup with Farro. If you like tomatoes and the chewiness of farro, you are sure to enjoy this light, refreshing, gazpacho-like soup that is rich in antioxidants and flavor.
What's more, if you're looking to pair up farro with winter squash as a side dish for roasted meat or fish, check out this recipe for farro with roasted squash, feta and mint, published in The New York Times' cooking section.13 If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you can skip the meat and enjoy the farro and squash as a hearty main dish.
Again, make sure you stick with whole grain farro, which will require you to plan ahead. Even though it requires an overnight soaking and at least 45 to 50 minutes of cooking time, the many health benefits you will receive make whole grain farro worth the extra effort.