“Ancient grains may have an increasingly important role to play in the next several decades as climate change transforms aspects of our agricultural system. Grains require far fewer gallons of water per calorie than most other foods, and ancient grains, specifically, tend to be more tolerant of extreme weather than other crops. From their nutritional benefits, and their robust and appealing flavors, to their role as hearty, low-input crops, ancient grains have a lot to offer our fields and plates.”
The Oldways Whole Grains Council
Ancient grains have become one of the hottest trends in the whole grain category over the past few years. Much of their popularity has been a natural outgrowth of the widespread attention given to food and nutrition topics over the past decade, which has helped fuel growing culinary curiosity among consumers. Thanks to cooking shows, food blogs, international travel, and the growing conversation about our food and where it comes from, consumers are eagerly embracing new cuisines, the ingredients that make them distinct, and the stories and histories that bring them to life. Though they have been largely ignored by Western cuisines until recently, ancient grains are a key component of traditional diets around the world. Whether it’s teff and sorghum in Africa, bulgur and barley in the Mediterranean, brown rice and millet in Asia, or quinoa and amaranth in Latin America, these grains bring with them rich cultural and culinary histories.
While there is no official definition of the term ‘ancient grains,’ they are generally considered to include those grain varieties that have remained largely unchanged over the last several hundred years. This means that modern varieties of wheat, which have been constantly bred and changed, do not count as ancient grains, while much older wheat varieties, like einkorn, emmer/farro, Kamut®, and spelt, would be considered ancient grains in the wheat family. Heirloom varieties of other common grains – such as black barley, red and black rice, and blue corn – are also often considered ancient grains. Other grains, that have only reached mainstream Western palates in the last decade or so – such as sorghum, teff, millet, quinoa, and amaranth – are also widely considered part of the ancient grain category.
Promoting whole grains – ancient grains included, of course – is the primary focus of the Whole Grains Council, one of the programs run by Boston-based food and nutrition nonprofit, Oldways. Whole grains in general are a food group associated with lower rates of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and more. The fact that ancient grains are typically eaten in their whole grain form makes them a particularly good option for consumers who are seeking more whole grain foods. In addition, many ancient grains are naturally gluten-free. Because of this, the gluten-free movement has played an important role in introducing the general public to varieties of ancient grains they hadn’t previously heard of, regardless of their dietary restrictions and preferences.
In August 2018, the Whole Grains Council conducted a Consumer Insights Survey of 1,500 US adults. We wanted to understand which grains were the most popular and common among consumers. We asked respondents which grains they had heard of and which ones they had tried. Given quinoa’s rapid leap from obscurity to fame over the past several years, it was unsurprising that quinoa topped the list of ancient grains, followed by buckwheat, millet, sorghum, and farro.
Since creating the Whole Grain Stamp packaging symbol in 2005, the Whole Grains Council has maintained a database of all the products registered and approved to use the Stamp. Today there are more than 12,000 products registered for Stamp use in 61 countries around the world, making the database a valuable resource for tracking whole grain trends globally. The following graph shows data indicating the percentage of products registered in the Whole Grain Stamp database that contain particular ancient grain ingredients. The most dramatic growth over the past ten years has been in the use of quinoa. Both sorghum and amaranth have also made steady and significant gains.
One of the biggest drivers of ancient grains’ staying power has been the enthusiastic embrace of the foodservice and manufacturing industries. Creating healthier products and menu items is a goal for many manufacturers and chefs currently, though when it comes to marketing new items to consumers, taste is a much more powerful motivator than health. As consumers and food professionals have incorporated more whole grains – and ancient grains, in particular – into their repertoire, many have been delighted to learn that grains don’t have to be the plain-tasting blank slate that refined grains often are. With flavors that range from nutty, to peppery, to sweet, and colors that run the gamut, the culinary advantages of these ingredients have sparked a flurry of creativity and innovation.
Here at the Whole Grains Council, as we look forward and predict the future of ancient grains in our food supply, we see no sign of this trend slowing. In fact, ancient grains may have an increasingly important role to play in the next several decades as climate change transforms aspects of our agricultural system. Grains require far fewer gallons of water per calorie than most other foods¹, and ancient grains, specifically, tend to be more tolerant of extreme weather than other crops. For instance, millet has one of the lowest water requirements of any grain crop, and teff thrives in both water-logged soils and through periods of drought².
From their nutritional benefits, and their robust and appealing flavors, to their role as hearty, low-input crops, ancient grains have a lot to offer our fields and plates. We look forward to watching the role they play in both health and sustainability in the coming years.
¹ Mesfin M. Mekonnen and Arjen Y. Hoekstra, “A global assessment of the water footprint of farm animal products,” Ecosystems 15 (2012):401-415.
² Board on Science and Technology for International Development and National Research Council, Lost Crops of Africa: Volume 1: Grains, (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 1996).