While the American diet has been dominated by conventional grains like corn, wheat, oats, and rice, a growing number of people are choosing more rare “ancient” grains for their unique tastes, nutritional benefits, and gluten-free, organic, and non-GMO advantages.
Many varieties of ancient grains
What are ancient grains? “There is not an official deﬁnition of ‘ancient grains,’ ” says Kelly Toups, program director at Oldways Whole Grains Council. “All whole grains are ‘ancient’ in a larger sense, as they all can trace their roots back to the beginnings of time. We generally deﬁne ancient grains loosely as grains that are largely unchanged over the last several hundred years.”
Ancient grains run the gamut from wheat varieties such as KAMUT® khorasan wheat, einkorn, emmer, and spelt to grains seeing renewed popularity such as sorghum, teff, millet, quinoa, and amaranth. Heirloom varieties of other common grains such as black barley, red and black rice, and blue and purple corn may also be considered ancient grains.
According to Dataessential, ancient grains showed the strongest growth on restaurant menus in 2016. Kamut saw 67 percent growth, sorghum was 64 percent, millet was 46 percent, and quinoa was 33 percent. A 2015 report from market research firm Packaged Facts found that 19 percent of American adults have purchased menu or grocery items with ancient grains in the past 30 days.
There is even a Cheerios + Ancient Grains cereal that contains KAMUT, spelt, and quinoa.
New cuisines, gluten-free, nutritional benefits
“Part of the popularity of ancient grains is due to the widespread national attention that has been given to food and nutrition over the past 5-10 years, as well as the growing culinary curiosity of the average consumer,” Toups says. “Consumers are embracing new cuisines and ingredients.”
Another big factor is that many ancient grains, such as quinoa, teff, and amaranth, don’t contain gluten, as wheat does. With the rise of gluten-intolerance, a growing number of Americans are seeking gluten-free foods.
“The gluten-free trend is certainly a contributor of the trend towards ancient grains. Since wheat, barley, and rye contain gluten, people trying to follow a gluten-free diet have to get a bit more creative with their grain choices,” Toups says.
There are other nutritional advantages. Ancient grains are whole grains so they provide more fiber, protein, and essential nutrients than refined grains, which can help prevent type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Many ancient grains are also grown organically and are non-GMO, two attributes increasingly in demand by consumers.
Quinoa goes mainstream
Quinoa, in particular, has reached mainstream status in the U.S., appearing on 8.8 percent of all restaurant menus in 2016, according to Dataessential. It’s featured in a Mediterranean chicken salad sold by Wendy’s fast food chain.
Quinoa, which has traditionally been grown in the Andean region of South America, is now being grown in the United States, particularly California, the Pacific Northwest and Colorado. But Kevin Murphy, a grain breeder at Washington State University, believes quinoa will soon be grown in many parts of the United States.
In 2016, Murphy and several colleagues received a nearly $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative in 2016 for research on quinoa.
Quinoa contains all the amino acids needed by humans, making it the only seed crop that’s also a complete protein.
“It’s healthy and nutritious and also tasty, so it’s great for sellers and growers,” Murphy says.
Lundberg Family Farms, a California-based organic rice grower and processor, has started growing organic quinoa.
“We started growing quinoa domestically as a result of observing quinoa’s increasing popularity among consumers, and a desire from retail customers to have an American-grown quinoa option,” says Tim Schultz, Lundberg vice president of research & development.
Lundberg’s quinoa production has grown from 40 acres in 2014 to more than 800 in California, Oregon and Washington.
Earlier this year, Denver-based Ardent Mills launched Great Plains Quinoa, which the company says is the largest quinoa growing network in North America, extending into Canada.
KAMUT® khorasan wheat
KAMUT khorasan wheat is an ancient wheat with origins in Mesopotamia. Bob Quinn, a long-time organic farmer, introduced the grain in the late 1980s. Compared to most modern wheat, KAMUT has more protein, amino acids, vitamins and many minerals, especially selenium, zinc and magnesium. It is always grown certified organic.
In 2016, Kamut International contracted about 80,000 acres of KAMUT, primarily in Montana, North Dakota and Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada.
Demand is strong for KAMUT, says Tara Blyth, director of communications at Kamut International.
“We have an average annual growth of 12% over the past decade. This growth comes from both existing customers increasing their sales and new companies and products coming on board.”
KAMUT is used in a wide range of products, including breads, pasta, pizza, cereals, snacks, pastries, crackers, beer, green foods and cereal drinks. More than 2,000 products worldwide carry the KAMUT trademark.
Peer reviewed research has found that replacing modern wheat with KAMUT can have positive effects on inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, says Blyth.
Einkorn, emmer, and freekah
Other ancient wheat varieties also seeing renewed interest include einkorn and emmer and a roasted wheat called freekah.
Einkorn is the oldest domesticated wheat dating back 10,000 years. Einkorn is 30-40 percent higher in protein than modern wheat as well as higher in B vitamins, vitamin A, and iron and a good source for minerals.
Emmer is the second oldest wheat variety, found in tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, which is why it also known as “farro.” Emmer was a staple food of the Roman armies, which spread the grain throughout Italy. Emmer is also high in protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Freekah is the result of a process of roasting wheat that originated in Syria thousands of years ago. Wheat is harvested before fully mature and roasted to give it a smoky, nutty flavor.
“The roasting captures more nutrient density at earlier stage of maturity,” says Carolyn Lane, vice president of Nature’s Organic Grist/Freekeh Foods, Inc.
People with gluten intolerance can eat einkorn and emmer, Lane says.
Both wheat varieties are grown in northern wheat-growing regions like North Dakota and Saskatchewan. Einkorn and emmer are also mostly grown organically.
The ancient grains trend will continue, says Lane. “This is a trend that isn’t going away. These grains offer alternatives with functional and nutritional benefits, new flavors and textures. People are looking for grains that are genuinely natural and pure.”