You’ve heard of common grains like barley, buckwheat and whole wheat, I’m sure. But have you ever tried farro? Chances are you haven’t even ever heard of it. But you should!
This ancient grain is beginning to gain traction for its health benefits and ability to adapt to different recipes. In a similar vein as kamut or bulgur wheat, farro makes a good alternative grain addition to several dishes. And while it does contain gluten, it contains lower levels than today’s wheat, and if prepared properly, the gluten is pre-digested and broken down by sprouting and fermentation like a sourdough process. This makes it much more tolerable with anyone sensitive to gluten.
So what exactly is farro, what are the biggest farro benefits and how can you use this ancient grain? Let’s take a look.
What Is Farro?
Farro, also called emmer in some parts of the world, is a type of ancient wheat grain that has been eaten for thousands of years around the world. Today, you’re likely to find farro (Triticum turgidum dicoccum) in many Mediterranean, Ethiopian or Middle Eastern restaurants, where it has a very long history.
Its use goes back to the Fertile Crescent and ancient Roman Empire, where it was a popular grain and “daily ration” among poorer people living in these areas. Royals dined on farro, too. In fact, it even acquired the nickname “pharaoh’s wheat” since it was popular in Egypt before spreading to Italy.
These days, especially in parts of Italy — but also increasingly throughout the world, including in the U.S. — this high-fiber food is staging a comeback as a gourmet specialty. In fact, this hearty, nutty-tasting grain is making its way onto more and more upscale restaurant menus as people discover it not only tastes great, but is great for you too. An excellent source of protein, fiber and nutrients like magnesium and iron, it’s a big step up from using white rice or other refined grains in your favorite dishes.
As wheat, it contains the gluten protein, which is found in the grains wheat, barley and rye, and is most definitely not gluten-free.
Wheat is by far the most common grain consumed today, a huge staple crop in the modern world’s food supply — and it’s the main ingredient used to make breads, pastas and other packaged refined carbohydrate foods. However, while both contain the gluten protein, there’s an important difference between eating ancient forms of unprocessed wheat grains (like farro, einkorn and barley) compared to popular refined types of wheat often eaten in the U.S.
According to the U.S. Whole Grains Council, eating 100 percent whole grains, including wheat, provides well-researched benefits, such as:
- reducing the risk of stroke by more than 30 percent
- reducing the risk for type 2 diabetes by 20 percent to 30 percent
- significantly lowering risk for heart disease risk factors, including high cholesterol and high blood pressure
- helping with better weight maintenance
- reducing the risk of asthma
- helping people to consume more dietary fiber, which is important for digestion
- preventing obesity
- reducing the risk for numerous inflammatory diseases
Farro Nutrition Facts
As “old world grain,” traditionally farro has been used in soups, salads and even some desserts, usually paired with olive oil, fresh herbs, fruit and all types of vegetables. It looks similar to wheat berries — it’s a little light brown grain with a visible bran — and has a chewy texture and mild taste, which makes it a good alternative to rice, quinoa, buckwheat, barley, spelt or other ancient grains.
While farro might have been a popular ingredient centuries ago, gradually it’s become overshadowed by other types of wheat grains, including durum and einkorn wheat, which are used to make most flours and pastas since they’re typically easier to process and hull.
Although it’s become more widely available recently, considering all that farro has to offer — lots of fiber, B vitamins, zinc, iron and even a good dose of protein — it’s a shame most people still don’t even know it exists. By the beginning of the 20th century, farro was mostly replaced by processed flour products made from higher-yielding wheat strains, which meant it could barely be found anywhere besides online or some ethnic grocery stores for many decades. While most of the world gave up on using farro for everyday recipes, one of the few exceptions to this has been Ethiopia, where farro still comprises around 7 percent of all wheat that’s grown (still not a very high number, all things considered).
Another popular use for farro, and one of the few ways most people have probably tried it, is making some semolina flour, which is native to parts of Tuscany and often said to make the best homemade pastas!
How does farro stack up against other ancient grains? Like all whole grains, farro provides a concentrated dose of complex carbohydrates, especially dietary fiber. Because it contains more fiber than other popular grains like rice or even quinoa, farro might have even more positive benefits when it comes to digestion and cardiovascular health. It’s also exceptionally high in protein for a grain and supplies more than 10 different vitamins and minerals.
The USDA does not provide nutrition information for farro at this time, but we can assume it has similar nutrients to other closely related ancient wheat species, such as spelt flour. With that in mind, 1/2 cup serving of uncooked farro has about:
- 150 calories
- 34 grams of carbohydrates
- 7–8 grams fiber
- 7–8 grams protein
- 1 gram sugar
- 1 gram fat
- 4 milligrams niacin (15 percent DV)
- 60 milligrams magnesium (15 percent DV)
- 2 milligrams iron (10 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligrams thiamine (10 percent DV)
- 2 milligrams zinc (10 percent DV)
6 Health Benefits of Farro
1. High in Fiber
A very high level of fiber in farro makes it heart-healthy, good for digestion, and beneficial for preventing blood sugar or insulin spikes and dips. One 1/2 cup serving of farro has about seven to eight grams of cholesterol-lowering fiber, which is more than four times the amount in white rice or a slice of white bread!
Given all its fiber, farro is sure to fill you up, since it’s an unprocessed grain — meaning it has an intact bran and germ, the parts of the grain that provide nutrients, protein and fiber, which winds up swelling up in your digestive tract, keeping you satisfied for longer than refined grains. Adults need at at least 25 grams of fiber daily, and in general, the more we get the better.
Fiber is more than just a regulator. It’s beneficial for preventing constipation, clearing the arteries of plaque buildup, curbing hunger pangs and supporting a healthy gut environment. Farro’s complex carbohydrates break down slowly, keeping your energy levels more stable compared to eating refined grains, which makes it a great choice for hard-working athletes.
Keep in mind that while farro can help improve digestion due to helping you get more fiber, it does contain gluten, since it’s a type of wheat. For people who are sensitive or allergic to gluten, similar grains that are gluten-free (like buckwheat, amaranth or wild rice) are a better choice.
On the plus side, farro is believed to contain less gluten that many modern strains of wheat and is said to be easier for people with various types of intolerances to digest. Because it’s easily digested and so low in gluten, some claim that certain types of farro can often be eaten by people who normally experience gluten intolerance symptoms, although I wouldn’t recommend trying this out if you’re very sensitive to even a small amount of gluten’s effects since some strains have more gluten than others.
2. Improves Immunity and Heart Health
Like other 100 percent whole grains, farro supplies not only high concentrations of dietary fiber, but also resistant starch, oligosaccharides and antioxidants, including phenolic compounds that have been linked to disease prevention. Studies show the more whole grains someone eats, the more protection that person seems to have against chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, in addition to obesity.
Among farro’s different types of carbohydrates is a specific compound called cyanogenic glucosides, which have been shown to positively affect the immune system, lower inflammation, help regulate blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol. Farro makes a great addition to recipes in place of refined grains or even low-quality cuts of meat, since it’s hearty, high in protein and fiber, plus free of fat, sugar, sodium and artificial additives.
3. Good Source of Protein
In addition to fiber, it surprises many people to find out that ancient grains like farro are also excellent protein foods. In fact, farro is considered an excellent source of plant-based protein, providing just about the same amount as most legumes or beans and even more than many other whole grains.
If you’re cutting down on the amount of animal products or meat you consume, you’ll be happy to know that farro can form a complete source of protein when paired with other plant foods like vegetables. This is one reason why people use it similarly to legumes, beans, peas or lentils.
4. High in B Vitamins
Farro contains mulitple B vitamins, especially vitamin B3 niacin, which is important for metabolic health and breaking down or converting carbohydrates, fats and proteins from the foods we eat into energy. B vitamins are also important for brain health, maintaining high energy levels, neurotransmitter function and supporting the central nervous system. Vitamin B2, another B vitamin found in farro, is critical for development, reproductive capabilities and the conversion of carbohydrates found in whole grains.
5. Good Source of Antioxidants
Most people think of vegetables or fruits as being the only high-antioxidant foods, but unprocessed grains also provide antioxidants, especially the type called lignans. Plant lignans are known to reduce inflammation and are highly consumed by populations known for their longevity and heart health, such as those who eat a traditional Mediterranean diet.
Lignans are bioactive, non-nutrient, non-caloric phenolic plant compounds that have a protective effect when consumed and metabolized by our intestinal bacteria. Studies suggest that increasing your intake of lignans — from foods like whole grains or seeds, for example — is associated with positive reactions of C-reactive protein, a lowering effect on plasma total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, lower blood pressure levels, and an overall reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
6. Provides Iron, Magnesium and Zinc
Farro is a good source of nutrients that some plant-based eaters, or anyone with a mostly processed diet, might be missing out on, including magnesium, zinc and iron. Iron is important for preventing anemia and helping to improve energy, while zinc is crucial for brain function, helping with growth and development and facilitating with DNA and cellular functions.
Magnesium is a crucial electrolyte that has numerous benefits — preventing muscle cramps and PMS symptoms, helping you sleep better, fighting of headaches and helping with digestion — but many people actually have a magnesium deficiency and don’t even realize it.
How to Cook Farro and Use It at Home
Wondering what farro tastes like? According to food writers for The New York Times, “farro looks and tastes somewhat like a lighter brown rice. It has a complex, nutty taste with undertones of oats and barley, but it’s lacking the heaviness of many whole-wheat grains … farro tastes more elegant than earnest.”
Farro comes in several different forms, since among farro there are actually several species of grains and more than one way of processing the seeds. In fact, farro is said to be a pretty confusing grain — even many chefs and native Italians aren’t sure which type is which! Another type of related wheat plant (Triticum monococcum) called ”little farro” is sometimes sold under the name of farro, but it’s said to be much less evolved than farro and has a cruder kernel, higher cost and different taste.
Look for “medium farro” if possible, since this is the species that has the preferred complex taste, shorter cooking time and health benefits you’re looking for. How can you tell the difference between farro and other wheat grains? Experts recommend looking for light brown, cleft grains with subtle white stripes and a little white peeking out of some of the kernels. Farro can be easily confused for spelt, but luckily spelt has similar benefits and a comparable taste.
You can find farro in most large supermarkets these days, health food stores and usually Italian/Middle Eastern grocers. It’s typically sold dried and prepared by cooking the grains in water until they’re softened up and chewy, but still somewhat crunchy too. Since whole grains take a longer time to cook than “pearled” or refined grains, it’s a good idea to first soak the grains overnight.
To make sure you get the most benefits, look for whole farro and avoid kinds that are labeled as “pearled,” which means the farro has been partially processed and some of the nutrients and fiber have been removed. Whole grain foods are superior to processed grains because they deliver the bran, germ and endosperm of the original grain, and therefore both the outer bran layer (which is composed of non-digestible, mainly insoluble, poorly fermentable carbohydrates) along with the the inner germ and starchy endosperm (which holds all the vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, oils and other phytonutrients).
Farro sometimes only comes in perlato (pearled) and semi-perlato (semi-pearled) varieties. Semi-perlato is the better choice among the two since it has more of the fiber- and nutrient-rich bran. You might also find farro sold in different “bran grades”: long, medium or cracked grades. It’s best to buy long or medium, which means it hasn’t yet been cracked and should be fresher, retaining more nutrients that can be lost when the grain is cracked. You can crack long grain farro yourself with a coffee grinder or blender if you’d like to speed up cooking time.
Cooking with Farro
What kinds of recipes does farro work well in? You can keep things simple and eat farro on its on with some simple seasonings (just like you would with rice or quinoa) or use farro in place of Arborio rice to make risotto. It makes a great hearty addition to veggie soups, stews and chilis.
It’s also common to use cooked and chilled farro in salads along with herbs, nuts and veggies. A few popular uses for farro around the world include eating it with milk or cream and topped with honey and nuts for a hearty breakfast similar to granola, pairing it with pistachios and olive oil for a farro pilaf-style side dish, or using it in place of barley in mushroom dishes.
Store farro in a tightly sealed plastic or glass container in a cool, dry and dark location, such as in your refrigerator where it will stay fresh for longer. All whole grains should ideally be tightly wrapped or sealed to preserve their delicate oils, so don’t shy away from even putting them in the freezer. As with all grains, I recommend you soak and sprout farro first before eating it whenever possible.
Not familiar with the benefits of sprouted grains? Compared to sprouted seeds (in this case sprouted grains), unsprouted grain seeds have a lower protein content, deficiency of certain essential amino acids, lower protein and starch availabilities, and the presence of certain antinutrients that block the absorption of vitamins and minerals. Grains are really the seeds of cereal grasses, and sprouting seeds makes them edible even when raw, easier to digest and more beneficial in terms of providing absorbable nutrition.
There’s a reason farro has been a popular grain among some of the longest-living people in the world: It’s chock-full of health benefits. The the fiber, protein, iron, magnesium, zinc, B vitamins and antioxidants improve health in so many ways and make it one of the most heart-healthy, immune-boosting grains on the planet.
So if you’re looking for an alternative to the unhealthy refined grains common in today’s diet, and you’re looking to mix things up beyond quinoa and other healthier grains, farro is a perfect addition to salads, stews, soups and more. It may not be the most popular grain around, but it’s gaining traction and makes the perfect choice to add variety to your choice of grains.