Ancient Grains: Full Circle
April 01, 2010
by Jennifer Barnett Fox
As consumers grow more versed in the language of whole grains, ancient grains are shaping up as the newest grain frontier. Ancient grains are finding new roles among consumers looking to add variety to their whole-grain consumption or supplement nutrition in gluten-free foods.
But what’s an ancient grain? While no official categorization exists, ancient grains generally include amaranth, teff, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, Kamut and sorghum — all part of the whole-grain family.
Cynthia Harriman of the Whole Grains Council (WGC) joked that ancient grains are, "all the grains that have been so unpopular that no one has bred any new versions over the eons." In a more serious manner, Ms. Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for WGC said ancient grains could be defined as, "all grains that are so marginal they’re not included in the US Department of Agriculture consumption statistics, which would mean anything other than wheat, rye, corn, oats and barley." WGC’s Web site highlights a new whole grain each month.
For the past two decades, celiac home bakers and gluten-free cookbook authors have used the gluten-free ancient grains to add nutrition and texture to their foods. More recently, restaurateurs and adventurous foodies have embraced ancient grains as replacements for traditional rice and pasta side dishes. But familiarity with the unique attributes of ancient grains has been tenuous and interest in the grains lukewarm. That humdrum opinion is waning with predictions that ancient grains could be the "next big thing."
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Whole grain, ethnically exotic and nutrient-rich, ancient grains hit all the current food trends, and mainstream consumers are taking notice. Ms. Harriman remarked that the fact consumers are asking for quinoa and other ancient grains by name shows they’re on the consumer radar.
WGC member ConAgra Mills is working to revitalize ancient grains for mainstream manufacturers and artisan consumers with its Ancient Grain flour blends. The company offers amaranth, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff in gluten-free single-grain flours, standardized or customized multigrain blends or coarse grain and seed inclusions. The company also offers Eagle Mills gluten-free all-purpose multigrain flour.
"Ancient grains aren’t as well known as other whole grains, so many bakers don’t know how to use them. But the knowledge base surrounding these innovative grains is growing," said Mike Veil, vice-president of marketing, ConAgra Mills, Omaha, NE. "We’re also working to change the perception of ancient grains so that they’re not simply viewed as grains, but flours and, furthermore, blends that can work in any operation or application, particularly mainstream applications."
Yet the perception of whole grains still remains a challenge, especially among young consumers, according to Project Educate, Act, Thrive at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. The research group’s data found that palatability barriers continue to hold consumption of whole grains down, with children eating around 0.6 to 0.7 servings per day, much less than the recommended three servings.
If bakers like Michel Suas have anything to say about the matter, ancient grains will have a much larger audience in the next evolution of artisan breads. Like many bakers, Mr. Suas, president and founder of San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI), South San Francisco, CA, previously categorized ancient grains as bad tasting and difficult to work with. On second look, he discovered ancient grains can be used and enjoyed without limitation.
"I think ancient grains are coming back to the marketplace because we have more knowledge about the grains," Mr. Suas said. "Now we are able to produce more consistency, and bakers are seeing the value of the flavor and texture provided by ancient grains."
This year, SBFI again offered classes on ancient grains for use in both artisan and gluten-free baking. Mr. Suas admitted most of SFBI students arrive with the assumption these grains will only produce bread lacking in flavor and texture. "Forget everything you’ve learned about ancient grains or anything you’ve tasted before," he continued. "You’ve got to relearn what you know about these grains and reinvent yourself as a baker in order to produce new products."
Manufacturers such as Bob’s Red Mill have built their success on a backbone of hearty, whole-grain organic products. The grain purveyor focuses on hard-core enthusiasts, providing grains in whole, flour or blended forms, as well as developing recipes that help consumers get the most from the whole grain’s flavor and nutrition. The company’s heirloom (ancient) grain offerings include quinoa, teff, Kamut grains and amaranth flour.
In addition to the heirloom grains’ hearty nutritional profiles, the company also promotes their storied history. "The culinary crowds are already savvy about grains, and they want new grains, textures and flavors," said Matt Cox, marketing manager, Bob’s Red Mill. "The heirloom grains have a great narrative that can be traced back to a region, and I think consumers of these grains enjoy a more
enlightened, meaningful eating experience because it contains a back-story and narrative."
Mr. Cox recounted a story about how amaranth, a Mesoamerican grain used ritually by the Aztecs, was banned by the invading Spanish. Viewed as pauper’s food, consumption declined and many South Americans suffered nutritionally. As the US market for amaranth emerged, the stigma attached to the grain was shed and nutrition increased among South Americans who began to eat amaranth again.
Beyond a great story, ancient/heirloom grains have long provided a reliable nutrition option for celiacs and consumers of gluten-free foods. "The beauty of the ancient grains is that you receive all the benefits of whole grains — the germ, bran and endosperm," said Carol Fenster, who develops gluten-free mixes for Bob’s Red Mill. "All the nutrients are still there, and they are going to digest more slowly as a complex carbohydrate."
An Italian study in Minerva Med cited the palatability and health benefits from fermenting ancient grains into sourdough-like bread. Researchers found this processing method results in the creation of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a substance that, according to the National Institutes of Health, can be important in brain health, especially in guarding against seizures. Leslie Cerier, author and food industry consultant, also pointed out these ancient grains are also generally organic and GMO-free.
Ms. Fenster, a life-long celiac, has relied on the use of sorghum as the main protein flour in recipes. The sorghum flour replaces white rice flour. Once grown primarily as animal feed, food-grade or sweet sorghum is now also bred for use as both a grain and flour. The white sorghum eliminates the bitter tannins of the animal-grade red sorghum. Because of the stronger flavors associated with ancient grains, Ms. Fenster recommended that these flours are always blended with starchier flours to provide lift, aeration and a more mild flavor.
Montina, created from a wild Native American rice grass, is another go-to flour for many gluten-free bakers. The high-protein, high-calcium flour is available flaked and gives foods the appearance of a product made with whole wheat. Mesquite flour is another ancient grain option, although its use is less prevalent. The mesquite pod has strong, cocoa-like properties that make it a good match for spiced products but not for bread.
According to Beth Hillson, president, American Celiac Disease Alliance, the nutritional qualities of ancient grains are especially important for gluten-free consumers who already may be nutrient deficient. "All of the ancient grains have a lot of protein and fiber and are nutritionally balanced," said Ms. Hillson, editor of Living Without magazine. "Traditionally many flours such as the white rice flour used in the production of gluten-free products have only had carbohydrates. Because the gluten is missing, these ancient grains add back needed protein." These nutritional qualities become all the more important with a growing prevalence of obesity among gluten-free consumers, according to Ms. Fenster.
This year, Kamut International, a producer of Khorasan wheat, a form of Triticum turanicum, will publish research reporting individuals with wheat-sensitivities can tolerate the Kamut brand of grain. The research funded by the Great Falls, MT, company outlines the differences between ancient and modern wheat at a biochemical and nutritional level. The company is also working with SFBI to develop a line of bread mixes made with the grain.
"We try to keep the old grains message new by reporting the results of research, making more people aware of it and by providing additional ways to use the products," said Bob Quinn, founder, Kamut International.
As with any unknown, it pays to do your research. Ancient grain applications will continue to grow, but education about the product, processing differences and their nutritional attributes remains an important consideration. "Take all your knowledge of processing, fermentation and technology and apply it to these ancient grains," Mr. Suas said. "By understanding the grains and their characteristics, we can create something that’s a pleasure to eat."