Dear readers: Eating healthy is critical to staying healthy. Need to learn what is right for you? Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) at ECU Physicians and also at Vidant Lifestyle Medicine Clinic offer telehealth and telephone visits. Keep social distancing, washing your hands and wearing a face covering when near other people in public, and eat and drink healthy.

Q I found a new recipe this weekend that called for farro but said any “ancient grain” will work. What on earth is farro and what makes it ancient? MM, Greenville

A Sounds like you and others are spending more time exploring healthy recipes. Have fun. Shay Ernest, an ECU dietetics senior who will continue her pursuit of becoming a RDN after graduation, offered to share some information.

Although the term “ancient grain” lacks a formal definition, it is generally defined as a grain remaining largely unchanged over the last several hundred years. Farro originated in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, has been regularly consumed in Italy for centuries, but only recently gained popularity in the United States.

Farro is often to referred to as one grain but it is the name used to group together the three different grains of einkorn, emmer and spelt. It is sold dry in either whole grain or pearl versions. Whole grain farro needs to be soaked overnight while pearled farro can be cooked relatively quickly. It is light brown and resembles wheat berries. It has a unique, mild nutty flavor with a chewy texture making it a great alternative to rice, quinoa, barley or buckwheat.

One quarter cup of dry farro has 140 calories, 30 grams of carbohydrates, and 6 grams of protein. Like other ancient grains, farro is packed with dietary fiber — 5 grams or 20 percent of your daily needs in that quarter cup dry. The same amount of white rice has about 1.2 grams of fiber. Fiber is important because it helps to stabilize blood sugar levels and can help lower total and LDL cholesterol. Consuming adequate fiber also promotes feelings of fullness and healthy digestion and helps the body feel full, which can aid in weight management. The benefits gained from the fiber content found in farro help to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Ancient grains tend to contain more vitamins and minerals than their refined grain counterparts that lose some nutrients in processing. The quarter cup of dry farro has 15 percent of your daily needs for both zinc and magnesium, and 20 percent your daily needs of Vitamin B3 or niacin. Zinc plays a critical role in wound healing and supports a healthy immune system. Magnesium has several roles in the body which include keeping bones strong, proper nerve and muscle function and optimum immunity. Vitamin B3, like many of the other B vitamins, is necessary to convert food into usable energy for our bodies.

Fruits and vegetables usually steal the spotlight when it comes to antioxidants, but whole grains have a good amount to protect our bodies against developing diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and memory loss. Compared with modern wheat species, farro has higher amounts of antioxidants like polyphenols, carotenoids, and selenium. Einkorn, one of the three grains considered farro, has been shown to have carotenoid values, specifically lutein, that are three to eight times higher than modern wheat found in cake flour.

Traditionally farro is eaten like other grains — in soups, stews, or casseroles or as a side dish. I like farro on mixed greens with kalamata olives, tomatoes and feta cheese for a Mediterranean bowl. Some eat it as a breakfast porridge topped with fruit or mixed with nuts or as a topping on yogurt. It is a bit pricey and hard to find both in stores or getting in take-out. Our local Harris Teeter stocks a pearled variety under the brand Earthly Choice for around $0.46 an ounce. You can find it for online purchase.

If you love the sound of the recipe but can’t get farro, substitute quinoa or brown rice, which are less expensive. Quinoa is about half the price of farro, around $0.27 per ounce at Food Lion, while still offering many of the same benefits. All in all, the MyPlate recommendations are to make at least half your grains whole grains, and farro is just one of the many ways to meet this goal.

Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an affiliate professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.