Why do Americans love ancient grains?

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Quinoa farmer in BoliviaImage source, AFP

Would you like to taste the health-giving grain found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun? Or feast on the unprocessed kernels said to have been stored on the ark by Noah? Or how about a vodka made from traditionally farmed Bolivian quinoa? If any of this whets your appetite, you are not alone.

In the past five years there has been an explosion in popularity of so-called "ancient grains" in the American food market.

There is no comprehensive list of "ancient" grains, but the category is generally agreed to include amaranth, barley, bulgur, buckwheat, kamut, millet, spelt, teff and quinoa.

Many of these grains - Bolivian quinoa and Ethiopian teff, for example - have been planted and harvested in the same way for thousands of years.

"It's been a positive perfect storm for these ancient grains," says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutritional strategies at the non-profit organisation, the Whole Grain Council.

"They fit with our desire to look for a super-food, a magic bullet we should be eating," she says.

Ancient grains are perceived as the opposite of modern wheat, which is the descendant of three ancient strains of wheat - spelt, einkorn and emmer - and often heavily refined.

They are seen as more healthy, more natural and better for us, providing more vitamins, minerals, fibre and protein than modern wheat - partly because they are rarely eaten in processed form.

Ancient grains

Image source, Thinkstock

• Amaranth - a grain, used by the Aztecs, which is both gluten and wheat-free and is a source of vitamin C

• Barley - an excellent source of fibre, manganese, selenium, and thiamine

• Bulgur - a quick-cooking form of whole wheat which is high in manganese

• Kamut - has a nutty flavour and is high in fibre, protein and several minerals, including selenium and manganese.

• Millet - a small, whole grain is a staple in many Asian and African countries but thought of mostly as bird food in the United States

• Spelt - commonly eaten in medieval times, spelt is part of the wheat family and is high in protein and fibre

• Teff - common in Ethiopia, this grain has the highest calcium content

• Quinoa - perhaps the best known ancient grain, quinoa is a complete protein since it has all nine essential amino acids

Source: Today's Dietitian

Many of the grains are also gluten-free, or at least low in gluten, tapping into a growing demand from consumers.

Part of the popularity of these grains are the stories that surround them, says Harriman.

"We're drawn to the idea that kamut comes from King Tutankhamun's tomb, the story draws our attention," she says.

"It's a revolt against processed food. It's the opposite of modern."

Image source, General Mills

Other nutritionists agree.

"Aztec, Indian, African," says Vandana Sheth, nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

"People might be more interested in trying these grains because of their place of origin, history and the culture," she says.

One of the first references to ancient grains as a health food was in an article in the New York Daily News in 1996.

Since then they have seen a steady surge in popularity, with a huge increase in consumption over the past five years, particularly in the last year.

According to figures released by the US Whole Grains Council, sales of kamut rose 686% in the year from July 2013, while sales of spelt rose by 363% and amaranth by 123% - all, admittedly, from a low base.

Such growth figures have spurred the processed food industry to take notice, especially against a backdrop of falling sales of breakfast cereals.

"In the past year ancient grains saw a 50% growth across all categories, and a 44% growth in the cereal category," says Alan Cunningham, marketing manager for new products for the food giant General Mills.

The company has announced it will be launching a new line of its successful breakfast cereal, Cheerios, with ancient grains next year.

"It's a way to bring this product into the mainstream," Cunningham says.

"Consumers may feel that the barrier to eating ancient grains is that they're not convenient, so we figured a way to deliver them in a bowl of cereal."

But this will also mean including five times as much sugar as in the original Cheerios recipe - 5g of sugar per 28g serving, instead of just 1g - though, as Cunningham points out, about half as much as in the company's best seller, Honey Nut Cheerios.

"We feel great about the health profile of this Cheerios," he says.

But the addition of sugar and heavy processing has led some to accuse companies like General Mills of cynically making money from the "health halo" surrounding ancient grains.

"Like any grain they can be used in a healthy or unhealthy way," says Hemi Weingarten, founder and CEO of the food blog site Fooducate.

"The gullible consumer is going to buy more if it sounds healthy," he says.

Nutritionists argue that consumers should look at carefully at nutrition labels before buying processed food, to check for the amount of whole grains, and of added ingredients, such as sugar.

"I have heard industry analysts talking about taking advantage of the ancient grains trend," says nutritionist Cynthia Harriman.

"With ancient grains on the label, you could increase the price by 50-300%," she says.

The main barrier standing in the way of incorporating more ancient grains into the American diet is a shortage in supply.

There are also concerns that the exploding market for the grains could have an adverse effect on populations that have eaten them for centuries, the quinoa-growers of Bolivia, for example.

But experts do not see this as a passing fad.

"By incorporating ancient grains, we'll benefit by not only getting more whole grains but enjoying a wider array of flavours, textures and nutritional profiles," says Vandana Sheth.

"Although they are currently thought of as a hot trend, I believe that ancient grains are here to stay."

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