Ancient grains on the long road to ubiquity

by Jeff Gelski
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Brio Crispy Chicken Salad with farro
Brio Tuscan Grille calls out farro in the crispy chicken salad on its menu.

ROSEMONT, ILL. — A menu adoption cycle from Datassential may give insight on how popular some specific ancient grains have become in America. For example, sorghum, farro and quinoa all are on different levels in the cycle.

Sorghum is still in the “inception” level, where ingredients start to appear in fine-dining establishments and authentic ethnic restaurants, said Mark DiDomenico, director, client solutions for Datassential, at the Whole Grains Council conference “Whole Grains in Foodservice, the Next Frontier” in Rosemont on Sept. 26. Sorghum is showing up in buttermilk pancakes, pizza and Southern cuisine like Creole shrimp, Mr. DiDomenico said.

Farro has risen to the “adoption” level, where an ingredient starts appearing on menus in fast-casual restaurants. Mr. DiDomenico noted Brio Tuscan Grille calls out farro in the crispy chicken salad on its menu. Farro, also known as emmer, penetrated, or was found, on menus in 3% of more than 7,000 restaurants that Datassential covered in its MenuTrends service in 2016.

Farro menu penetration chart
Farro was found on menus in 3% of more than 7,000 restaurants that Datassential covered in its MenuTrends service in 2016.

Farro has the potential to become “the next quinoa,” Mr. DiDomenico said. People often ask him what the next quinoa is going to be.

“Well, quinoa is the next quinoa,” he said. “It’s still growing. It’s not going anywhere.”

Quinoa’s penetration rate on menus reached 8.8% in 2016. It works in many different applications, including salads and burgers, Mr. DiDomenico said. Wendy’s calls out quinoa in a Mediterranean chicken salad.

Quinoa menu penetration chart
Quinoa’s penetration rate on menus reached 8.8% in 2016.

Quinoa is “firmly” in the proliferation level of the menu adoption cycle, he said. Achieving proliferation status means an ingredient is being picked up by restaurant chains, like Wendy’s.

“It’s far more popular,” Mr. DiDomenico said of ingredients at this level. “It’s got a broad consumer audience. People understand it. It’s not mysterious. It’s definitely become more mainstream.”

Ubiquity is the fourth and final level in the menu adoption cycle. Ingredients at this level appear in many establishments, even family dining restaurants and school cafeterias.

Wendy's Power Mediterranean salad with quinoa
Wendy’s calls out quinoa in its Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad.

“If it ends up on the menu at Denny’s, then you know it’s worked its way all the way through (the adoption cycle) — nothing against Denny’s,” Mr. DiDomenico said.

He added, “Bacon is at ubiquity. I don’t think bacon is coming off the menu anytime soon.”

Promoting protein could be one way food service operators might move ancient grains forward on the menu adoption cycle.

Triticale waffles
Triticale is still in the "inception" phase, though it may pop up in such items as waffles.

“On menus we’ve seen an exponential increase in mentions on protein, just the word protein,” he said. “More and more food service operators are calling out the protein content of their meals as a way to speak to consumer demand for more energy.

“Consumers equate that with energy and sustenance and the ability to keep going: ‘Keep me going. Fuel me through the day.’ I think that’s something to think about when you’re trying to create dishes around quinoa and amaranth and all the other grains.”

Mr. DiDomenico provided information on where specific grains and ingredients are on the menu adoption level.

Sorghum salad
Though still in the "inception" stage, sorghum is showing up in dishes such as salad and pizza.

Inception: triticale, millet, spelt, teff, sorghum, freekeh, Kamut, amaranth, red wheat, black rice.

Adoption: wheat berry, buckwheat, couscous, farro, bulgur, chia seeds, muesli, flax seeds, hominy, barley and polenta.

Proliferation: grits, whole grain, multi-grain, brown rice, steel-cut oats, quinoa, wild rice.

Ubiquity: oat, cornmeal, rye, wheat, white rice. 
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