Pulses, seeds, and grains

How consumer demand is resurrecting ancient grains from the past

By Adi Menayang

- Last updated on GMT

Sorghum, typically considered an ancient grain. Photo: USDA/Creative Commons
Sorghum, typically considered an ancient grain. Photo: USDA/Creative Commons

Related tags Ancient grains Wheat

Data from SPINS reveals that sales of products featuring 'ancient grains' grew 16.6% year-over-year to $198,884,358 in 2016.

The multimillion dollar sum encompasses packaged goods with the words “ancient grain,” “ancient food,” or “ancient variety” somewhere on its packaging. In terms of sales volume, SPINS data said that cold cereals, bread and baked goods, and shelf stable pastas were the top three.

A report by Packaged Facts from September 2015 revealed that 19% (one in five) of American adults​ has purchased menu or grocery items with ancient grains in the past 30 days, and a report from HealthFocus International found that global awareness of ancient grains was up​ from 26% in 2012 to 28% in 2014.

Ancient versus heritage

Though the terms 'ancient' and 'heritage' are often used interchangeably in the CPG sector, author Amy Halloran said that a generally accepted definition for 'heritage' is all the grain species and varieties grown before 1950, “before real modern plant breeding efforts started​."

Halloran wrote The New Bread Basket, ​published last year, where she documented the revival of the regional grain movement in the US. Halloran included emmer, spelt, and einkorn in her definition.

“But there’s not really a canon yet for what constitutes an ancient grain,” ​Halloran told FoodNavigator-USA. As of now, there isn’t a federal standard for what can be classified as heritage or ancient grains. For other experts, ancient, as the name suggests, dates even further back. Eli Rogosa, founder of the nonprofit Heritage Grain Conservancy​, told FoodNavigator-USA that she wouldn’t consider millet or spelt as ancient, as many CPG brands would. “They’re just uncommon grains, what I study are grains that are even more rare.”

According to Rogosa, einkorn is the golden example of an ancient grain. Her website, which is also a portal to sell some ancient grains, include varieties and species like the Hourani Biblical Wheat, “stored 2,000 years ago by King Herod,”​ which would have been extinct if it weren’t for a collection effort which started in 1926.

A rich flavor, but not a nutritional savior

“I’m amazed by the growth of interest in this. I think it’s really great because people have gained a great fear of gluten and carbs, and anything that can reintroduce them to the wonder of staple crops I think is amazing,” ​Halloran told FoodNavigator-USA.

“But I also think it’s a little bit hyped and the need for us to attach ourselves to the latest trends foodwise, and hope that it will be our nutritional savior,” ​she added. A Wall Street Journal from 2012 reported​ that einkorn may have more protein and minerals like phosphorus and zinc than most all-purpose flour, but these nutrients are already abundant in the average American diet. The much needed fiber, on the other hand, is slightly lower in einkorn than in modern wheats, the article said. 

Data from SPINS found that cold cereals led by volume of sales for products with "ancient grain" labels. Nature's Path's heritage Crunch uses Kamut Khorasan wheat, barley, millet, and spelt.

If anything, experts and proponents of ancient and heritage grains champion the rich flavors that non-modern grain varieties and species have. Halloran thinks its “people wanting something that tastes like something” ​that is keeping people hooked to products made with ancient grains.

Rogosa concurred. “Heirloom food crops taste better, they were selected over millennia for flavor and disease resistance in the local complex of pathogens and pests,” ​she said.

An example of a widely distributed brand that consistently uses ancient grains is British Columbia-based Nature’s Path​, which uses Kamut Khorasan, spelt, barley, and millet.

“We chose the ancient grains in our Heritage Flakes​ and Heritage Crunch​, as well as in other cereals, for their deep, rich, nutty flavor, as well as their superior nutrient density including protein and fiber,” e​xecutive VP of sales and marketing Arjan Stephens told FoodNavigator-USA.

Resilience for the farmers

It’s not just heirloom grains that are gaining momentum—the same goes for heirloom pulses​, heirloom corn​, and heirloom vegetables​. Depsite the learning curve and time it will take for cultivation to catch up with demand, experts like Halloran and Rogosa are optimistic about its impact on agriculture.

“[Modern wheats] are babied, they aren’t fighters or survivors,” ​Rogosa said, attributing this to Big Agriculture’s use of fossil fuel-derived pesticides and herbicides to ensure high yield. “The older varieties thrive in what we’re calling climate change, because they’ve evolved over millennia through natural climate change.”

Traditionally, Rogosa added, farmers would let wheat die, so those that survive today are a Darwinian testament to the species’ or variety’s resilience. Her nonprofit’s main mission is to prevent ancient wheat from extinction and spread awareness to encourage more producers. “Our motto is ‘Eat it to save it,’” ​she added. “The market demand for organic, heirloom, ancient will lead the farmers to restore them.”

Rogosa, who has studied ancient grains in Europe, the Levant, and North America, noted burgeoning market interest in the past five years. “People would ask for truck loads, but I have tiny samples,” ​she said. “When I started 10 years ago, modern wheats had literally replaced ancient wheats in almost every country. So farmers and bakers had to go back to gene banks. It’s going to be a process to meet that market demand.”

Luckily for ancient grain 'seedkeepers' such as Rogosa, CPG leaders like Nature’s Path echoed her optimism. “On the whole, consumers are becoming more aware of what’s in their food, where it comes from and how it impacts their health and wellness,”​ Stephens said.

“We encourage consumers to continue to seek out these healthy grains, especially USDA Certified Organic, for their health benefits and delicious, nutty taste.”

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