Their stories of origin may involve Incas, Aztecs or ancient Egyptians. Their promotable traits may include plant-based protein, omega-3 fatty acids or the absence of gluten.

Yes, adding ancient grains to foods and beverages has its advantages, but before formulation begins, remember each one may come with specific questions. Do consumers know about the ancient grain? Is there enough supply? Will it work in the targeted application?

Even the question “What is an ancient grain?” may have different answers.

“There is no regulatory definition today, and I have no insight as to whether there will be,” said Colleen Zammer, director of product marketing, Bay State Milling, Quincy, Mass.

Not all ancient grains are grains, either.

“Some stretch the definition to include pseudo-cereals and seeds such as quinoa and chia,” Ms. Zammer said.

Are people aware of it?

The United Nations wants the world to become more aware of quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) in 2013. The U.N. has given the “International year of quinoa” the theme, “A future sown thousands of years ago.” Grown in South America by the Incas as far back as 3,000 B.C., quinoa is known as “the golden grain of the Andes” because of its nutritional value, including essential amino acids.

The rising price of quinoa may attest to its demand. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, quinoa now fetches more than $2,000 per ton whereas a decade ago it sold for less than $70 per ton.

More quinoa awareness came on “The Dr. Oz Show.” The March 6 episode focused on ancient grains. For example, teff, which has a high level of resistant starch, is used by Ethiopians and Eritreans in a flatbread called injera. Kamut has its roots in ancient Egypt and offers energy benefits.

Tom Vierhile, innovations insight director for Datamonitor, included ancient grains in his presentation on “super grains” Nov. 7, 2012, at SupplySide West in Las Vegas. From Jan. 1, 2010, to Sept. 30, 2012, 607 new food and beverage launches around the world included farro (and spelt), he said. Quinoa, involved in 462 launches, was second among the super grains.

Chia is actually a seed and not a grain. Besides recognizing it as an element in “chia pets,” consumers are beginning to associate it with fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, too.

According to Datamonitor, chia was involved in 194 new food and beverage launches from Jan. 1, 2010, to Sept. 30, 2012. Chia dates as far back as 3,500 B.C. Today it is grown in South America, Mexico and Australia.

Is there enough?

The Hain Celestial Group, Inc., Melville, N.Y., offers chia under its Spectrum Essentials brand. Earlier this year the company announced a price increase because of supply-and- demand issues. Hain Celestial’s worldwide procurement abilities are needed to source chia.

“The guys at the beginning of the year went out and bought 20% of the world’s chia seed, and we still were out of stock, but we are able to go out and find product,” said Irwin Simon, president, chief executive officer and chairman of the board for Hain Celestial Group, in a Feb. 5 earnings conference call.

The Chia Co. supplies products from Australia. An irrigated crop and a frost-free environment in growing areas lead to consistent yield and consistent nutrition within the chia seeds, said John Foss, president and c.e.o. of The Chia Co. According to the company, 15 grams of its chia provide 5.6 grams of fiber, 2.9 grams of omega-3 fatty acids and 3.1 grams of protein.

The Chia Co. now has offices in Melbourne, Australia, London and New York. Besides selling chia as an ingredient, The Chia Co. offers product at the retail level. Nine different stock-keeping units may be found at Whole Foods Market.

Increasing quinoa supply is a goal of the United Nations. Bolivia and Peru account for more than half of the annual 70,000 tons produced. Growers in Canada, China, Denmark, Italy, India, Kenya, Morocco and The Netherlands are producing or undertaking agronomic trials designed for commercial production of quinoa.

While a hectare (about 2.5 acres) may produce 600 kilograms (1,323 lbs) of quinoa now, the Food and Agriculture Organization wants to raise production to more than a ton of quinoa per hectare. Reaching that goal would help raise the overall annual production to 200,000 tons.

ConAgra Mills, Omaha, has offered ancient grains since 2007. The line began with amaranth, quinoa, sorghum, millet and teff. This year the company added buckwheat, spelt and a variety of puffed and toasted grains for whole grain, multigrain, gluten-free and artisan foods.

“Consumer research shows us that Americans are excited about these heritage grains for a variety of reasons, including adding culinary adventure to mainstream favorites,” said Joni Huffman, director of business development for ConAgra Mills.

Bay State Milling made two moves involving ancient grains last year. In February 2012 the company said it had partnered with growers to offer OrganicEssentials whole spelt and OrganicEssentials white spelt flour.

In August of last year, Bay State Milling announced it was acquiring T.J. Harkins Basic Commodity Brokers, Inc., based in Bolingbrook, Ill. T.J. Harkins supplies ancient grains as well as edible seeds, sweet spices, specialty grain flours and grain blends.

“Grains like rye, spelt and millet are in reasonable supply and are leveraged by multi-national companies,” Ms. Zammer said. “Others like Kamut and amaranth (a pseudo-cereal) are in limited supply and have a higher cost associated with them.

“With demand for protein and gluten-free products on the rise, there will be pressure on crops like millet and amaranth, but the good news is they can grow in climates that exist in the U.S. If a reasonable demand and premium can be made by growing these grains, farmers will step up to grow them. Some may opt to maintain organic status (as Kamut has), which also helps keep the ancient status in check and ensures the premium price tag.”

Will it work?

The annual world production of millet grains at last count was 726,712 tonnes with India the top producer at 334,500 tonnes, according to a review published on-line in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. The review involved researchers from China Agricultural University in Beijing and Assiut University in Egypt.

Bird lovers may recognize millet as birdfeed, but many Africans also use it in porridge. Nigerians use millet in kunu, a nutritious beverage.

The researchers investigated how millet might be incorporated into mainstream commercial foods. They found millet grains contain such health-promoting components as fiber, minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals. They also found novel processing and preparation methods are needed to enhance the bioavailability of the micronutrients and to improve the quality of millet diets.

According to the review, using millet in ready-to-eat breakfast cereals seems feasible. Incorporating millet into bread or noodles may be more difficult since millet has no gluten. Millet may be used to replace a percentage of wheat flour in such applications.

Chia, which is gluten-free, adds binding and texture to gluten-free products, Mr. Foss said. Like millet, chia may be used in flour blends. Mr. Foss added chia comes in two colors. White chia may go into white bread, yogurt or beverages. Black chia stands out and is visible in products such as crackers or nutritional bars.

Formulators in North America have a new option when using quinoa. Novel Ingredient Services, West Caldwell, N.J., has become the exclusive U.S. distributor (neutraceutical market) for Quinoasure, a quinoa powder suitable for use as an ingredient in foods, beverages, dietary supplements and meal replacements. Novel Ingredient Services also will service Canada and Mexico.

Available in both conventional and organic form, Quinoasure is odorless, virtually tasteless and has better mouthfeel than quinoa grain, according to Novel Ingredient Services.

“Water solubility makes Quinoasure versatile enough to use in a variety of nutritional supplements and meal replacements, as well as beverages and foods,” said Bob Green, company president for Novel Ingredient Services.

Susan Key, manager of product applications for Bay State Milling, said, “It is imperative to understand every aspect of each of the ancient grains. Water-holding capacity is one major aspect that must be understood. Amaranth has a high water-holding capacity, while other ancient grains do not bind any water.

“As with any formula change that is made, the entire process of the baked good should be evaluated when adding ancient grains to dough systems. Formulation, water absorption, mix time, proof time, bake time and flavor are all critical elements when processing with ancient grains.”

Although humans have used ancient grains in foods and beverages for thousands of years, the learning process continues for formulators of today.

Notes on ancient grains

Each ancient grain has its own story. Here are a few:

Amaranth: Led by Cortez, the Spaniards in the 16th century wanted to outlaw foods used in Aztec festivals, called “heathen” by the Spaniards, according to the Whole Grains Council, Boston. The foods included amaranth, which the Aztecs may have domesticated as far back as 6,000 to 8,000 years ago.

Farro: It may refer to three types of grain: emmer wheat, einkorn wheat or spelt, said Tom Vierhile, innovations insight director for Datamonitor.

Freekeh: It refers to the practice of harvesting grains while they are young and green to retain the grains at the state of peak taste and nutrition, according to Freekehlicious, L.L.C., Norwood, N.J. The history of freekeh dates back to 2,300 B.C. It originally was grown in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

Kamut: According to Kamut International, Missoula, Mont., Kamut is a trademark. Grains must meet such qualifications as being of the ancient khorasan wheat variety, being certified organic and having a protein range of 12% to 18%.

Teff: Perhaps the smallest of all the ancient grains, teff is similar in size to a poppy seed, but it packs a nutritious punch, according to the Whole Grains Council. A cup of cooked teff has about 123 mg of calcium. Teff also is a source of vitamin C, and 20% to 40% of its carbohydrates are resistant starches.