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 impressive 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.
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. Today, you’re likely to find farro (Triticum turgidum dicoccum) in many Mediterranean, Ethiopian or Middle Eastern restaurants.
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. That’s because it’s an excellent source of protein, fiber and nutrients like magnesium and iron.
Ancient hulled wheat varieties are believed by historians to be among the early cereals that were domesticated in their places of origin in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. 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.
What is farro similar to? It looks similar to wheat berries — it’s a little light brown grain with a visible bran — and has a chewy texture and mild nutty flavor, which makes it a good alternative to rice, quinoa, buckwheat, barley, spelt or other ancient grains.
Is farro gluten free?
No; because it’s a type of wheat, it contains the protein gluten, which is found in all types of wheat, barley and rye grains. Therefore it isn’t appropriate for those following gluten-free diets.
On the plus side, farro is believed to contain less gluten that many modern strains of wheat. It may also be potentially easier for people with various types of intolerances to digest, according to some research.
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,
That being said, for those who can tolerate gluten, there’s an important difference between eating forms of unprocessed wheat grains (like farro, einkorn and barley) compared to popular refined types of wheat. According to groups such as the U.S. Whole Grains Council, and many studies conducted over the past several decades, 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
Is farro better for you than rice, quinoa, or other whole 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 wheat species, such as spelt. 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)
1. High in Fiber
Why is farro a good carb source? Studies show that a very high level of fiber, plus other compounds, makes it heart-healthy, good for digestion, and beneficial for preventing blood sugar/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! Adults need at at least 25 grams of fiber daily, and in general, the more we get the better.
Farro 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.
A large body of research has shown that whole grain foods are superior to processed grains because they deliver the bran, germ and endosperm of the original grain. They therefore both the outer bran layer (which is composed of non-digestible, mainly insoluble fiber, poorly fermentable carbohydrates) along with the the inner germ and starchy endosperm (which holds all the vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, oils and other phytonutrients).
Fiber is more than just a regulator. Research shows 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.
2. Improves Immunity and Heart Health
Like other 100 percent whole grains, farro supplies not only fiber, but also resistant starch, oligosaccharides and antioxidants, including phenolic compounds. These have been linked to disease prevention in many studies.
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.
3. Good Source of Protein
In addition to fiber, it surprises many people to find out that whole grains can be a good way to obtain protein. In fact, farro is considered an excellent source of plant-based protein, providing about the same amount as most legumes or beans.
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.
4. High in B Vitamins
Farro contains multiple B vitamins, especially vitamin B3 niacin, which is important for metabolic health and converting carbohydrates, fats and proteins from the foods we eat into energy.
Research shows that 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 research shows that unprocessed grains with their brans intact also provide antioxidants, especially the type called lignans.
Lignans are bioactive, non-nutrient, non-caloric phenolic plant compounds that have a protective effect when consumed and metabolized by our intestinal bacteria.
Plant lignans are known to reduce inflammation and are highly consumed by populations known for their longevity and heart health, such as those who follow a traditional Mediterranean diet meal plan.
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.
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 flavor with undertones of oats and barley, but it’s lacking the heaviness of many whole-wheat grains…”
Farro comes in several different forms. That’s because there are actually several species of farro grains and more than one way of processing the seeds. For example, farro medio and farro piccolo are two types with different sizes.
The two most common types are perlato (pearled farro) and semi-perlato (semi-pearled farro) varieties.
- Semi-pearled farro is the better choice among the two, since it has more of the fiber- and nutrient-rich bran. Kinds that are labeled as “pearled” means the farro grain been partially processed and some of the nutrients and fiber have been removed.
- You might also find farro sold in different “bran grades”: long, medium or cracked grades. 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.
- 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 and bran removed.
- You can crack long grain farro yourself with a coffee grinder or blender if you’d like to speed up cooking time.
- Another type of related wheat plant (Triticum monococcum) called ”little farro” is also available, but is “less evolved” than farro and has a cruder kernel, higher cost and different taste.
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. Depending on where you shop, this grain may also be called by other names, such as farro medio.
Farro can be easily confused for spelt (sometimes called farro grande, dinkel wheat or hulled wheat), but luckily spelt has similar benefits and a comparable taste.
Where to Buy Farro
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).
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.
How to Cook
Since whole grains take a longer time to cook than processed grains, it’s a good idea to first soak far grains overnight if you’re using semi-pearled farro grains.
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.
Here’s how to cook farro on the stovetop (it can also be cooked in a slow cooker or pressure cooker):
What kinds of recipes does farro work well in? You can keep things simple and eat cooked 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 also makes a great hearty addition to veggie soups, stews and chilis.
It’s also common to use herbs, nuts and veggies to make a farro salad. Other popular uses for farro around the world include eating it with milk or cream, 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.
Farro is al used to make semolina flour, which is native to parts of Tuscany and often said to make the best homemade pastas.
- What is the grain farro (Triticum turgidum dicoccum)? It’s a type of whole grain in the wheat family. It has similar health benefits to quinoa or barley, with a nutty flavor and chewy texture.
- 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 fiber, protein, iron, magnesium, zinc, B vitamins and antioxidants.
- Benefits of this whole grain include supporting heart health, digestion, blood sugar management, and preventing anemia, magnesium deficiency and low fiber intake.
- Farro is a perfect addition to recipes like salads, stews, soups and more. Look for semi-pearled farro in stores if possible, since this has more nutrients due to having less bran removed.
- Keep in mind that while farro can help improve digestion due to helping you get more fiber, it does contain gluten. 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.