Ancient Plant Alternatives Alleviate Allergies

Ann Foster, an avid camper and hiker from Arkansas, dreamed for years of moving to the Colorado mountains. But when her dream finally came true, Foster found herself sidelined with joint pain so severe that it was sometimes a challenge to walk across the room, let alone hike the Rockies.

Although Foster had taken arthritis medicine for years, her Boulder physician recommended food-allergy tests, which revealed that Foster was allergic to wheat, rice, eggs, milk, and other common foods.

After Foster changed her diet, her joint pain disappeared, and she was able to not only resume her active lifestyle, but also quit taking her $100 per month arthritis medicine. “People probably won’t believe it, but I was cured within two weeks,” says Foster. “It was miraculous.”

Foster had been eating a diet heavy in rice and bread products. After the allergy diagnosis, she switched to meals composed primarily of fresh fruit, vegetables, and nuts, plus wheat and rice alternatives such as quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), rye, and kamut. These often-ancient replacements for staple grains are gaining in popularity as creative chefs develop new ways to prepare them. They also help preserve ancient plant varieties and diversify America’s mono-cropped farms.

Kamut, also known as Egyptian wheat, has been found sealed in the pyramids. Although closely related to wheat, it is nutritionally superior and tolerated by some people who react badly to wheat, and many say it tastes better. Kamut does contain gluten, so those with celiac disease (gluten intolerance) should avoid it.


Allergy Cooking With Ease, by Nicolette M. Dumke and William Crook (Stardust Publishing, 1992)

Feeding Your Allergic Child: Happy Food for Happy Kids, by Elisa Meyer (St. Martin’s Press, 1997)

The Wheat Free Page:

Nu-World Amaranth:

Steep Hill Spelt Recipes:

Wheatless and Wonderful Recipes:

Foster’s favorite rice alternative is quinoa, an ancient Incan crop that was mixed with fat to make “war balls” that sustained armies during military campaigns. She likes its flavor, high protein content, and the fact that it cooks easily in the microwave. Closely related to vegetables like beets and spinach, quinoa is not a true grain, but it is rich in vitamins and provides a complete protein that contains eight amino acids. It’s known today as “little rice” in South America.

Another grain substitute native to South America is amaranth. The Aztecs thought amaranth had supernatural powers and used it to make figures of various gods, which were then eaten in religious ceremonies. Spanish conquistadors banned the practice, which they considered a parody of holy communion.

Besides being trendy in the United States, amaranth is widely used in Mexico to combat malnutrition because it is high in protein and, like quinoa, contains eight amino acids. Amaranth also is hardier and more drought-resistant than other staple crops, requires significantly less pesticide and fertilizer, and is usually grown without irrigation, thus making usable parcels of semi-arid land that would otherwise lie fallow or give low yields. Amaranth alone, however, doesn’t produce a consumer-acceptable bread because it doesn’t contain gluten, which provides strength and elasticity. In Mexico, amaranth is mixed with gluten-free maize in nonallergenic bread with a nutty taste and delicious aroma.

Another grain alternative is spelt, a wheat relative that, like kamut, has been found in the tombs of ancient Egyptians. Spelt, which also contains eight amino acids, is high in complex carbohydrates, easy to digest, and according to some, even more palatable than wheat, making it suitable for whole grain products such as pasta. Spelt crops are more resistant to disease and pests than wheat and can require a third less nitrogen fertilizer. Spelt also contains gluten.

“Any grain that’s not refined or polished has health benefits,” says Jeanette Maier, head chef at New York’s City’s Urban Kitchen. “Con-sumers are becoming more aware of alternative grains, and they like them. Consumer demand will make them even more available.”

From E Magazine (Sept./Oct. 1999). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (6 issues) from Box 2047, Marion, OH 43506.

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