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Modern Market Rediscovers Ancient Grains

Michael Whiteman-Jones



When mass market shoppers spin the giant food wheel, they can be pretty sure they'll land one of three grains: wheat, coral or rice. Natural food shoppers, on the other hand, face a growing number of exotic choices: quinoa, blue corn, spelt, amaranth, teff, kamut and chia.

"Our grain selection sets us apart from other stores," says Cheryl Hughes, owner of the 3,400-square foot Whole Wheatery restaurant and store in Lancaster, Calif. "They're fun, and I think people are looking for new tastes. I wish there were more."

Natural foods retailers and manufacturers interviewed by NATURAL FOODS MERCHANDISER report that ancient grains foothold in the marketplace is strong and growing stronger, especially as "new grains are rediscovered and the better-know grains are incorporated into familiar processed foods such as cereal, pasta and cookies.

"As a category, ancient grains are going to stick around for a while," predicts Rob Mitchell, owner of the two Buffalo Whole Food & Grain stores in San Francisco, Calif. "There do tend to be waves of interest in these grains, but once the first push ends, sales just settle into a nice flow.


Retailers say the popularity of ancient grains rests on a three-legged base: they appeal to adventurous cooks hunting for new tastes and textures; they provide vital alternatives to people who suffer from allergies to more common grains; and they supply a different range of nutrients than whole wheat, corn or rice.

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa), blue corn, spelt and amaranth are among the best-selling ancient grains for natural foods retailers. But Hughes says nearly consumers are still unfamiliar with them. To combat the ignorance and help promote the store's products, the Whole Wheatery regularly conducts cooking classes featuring grains. The classes are held two or three times a month and are limited to 15 people. They cost $7.50 to $10 just enough to cover expenses. "It's really advertising for the store, she notes.

Ancient grains are sold from bulk bins in many stores, but some retailers say packaged grains are easier to store and display. Packaging also allows the use of product labels, which can contain cooking suggestions, serving sizes and historical or nutritional facts that explain the grains and help sales. Hughes says sales also rise when the grains are used in the store's deli dishes or cooked and sampled to customers. "The biggest question I get about ancient grains is, 'What do you do with them?"' she says.

"People do ask for recipes, agrees Lisa Lane Hickey, owner of the 1,500-square-foot Amber Waves of Grain in Carmel. N.Y. "I'm a pretty good cook, and I'm always prepared to tell them how to cook things."


The taste of ancient grains often is distinctive. One reason is that many of then' have survived the centuries virtually untouched by modern plant science. says Bob Quinn, farmer. biochemist and president of Montana Flour & Grains in Big Sandy. Mont. Modern grains are carefully bred--or hybridized--for high crop yields, versatility and pest resistance. but because taste and nutrition usually are secondary concerns they can be less flavorful than their ancestors he says. Lack of breeding has endeared ancient grain to the 'macrobiotic community and others who believe that a grain's nutritional profile is important. Grains "come closer than any other vegetable crop to providing all adequate diet," food author Rebecca Woods writes in Quinoa--The Supergrain. "Grains contain all the major nutrient groups needed by the body--carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals."

Ancient grains often are a richer source of nutrients than conventional grains. Quinoa, for instance, is dubbed the supergrain because researchers have found that it can contain up to 50 percent more protein than common grains, as well as higher levels of fat, calcium, phosphorus, iron and B-vitamins. If I had to choose one food to survive fin, quinoa would be the best," says Duane Johnson, Ph.D., a new crops agronomist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. Amaranth, a companion to quinoa once revered by the Aztecs, has a nutritional profile so impressive that it was named once of the world's 'most promising foods by the National Academy of Sciences. It is high in protein, calcium, iron and fiber, as well as lysine and methionine, amino acids often in short supply in grains.

Spelt, mentioned in the Old Testament and believed to have been first cultivated in Europe some 9,000 years ago, also tops wheat in protein (though not by as much as quinoa or amaranth), amino acids, minerals and vitamins B-1 and B-2. It is rich in complex carbohydrates and fiber.


In addition to being nutritious, ancient grains also bring dietary relief to people who suffer from allergies to wheat and other common grains. Mitchell estimates his stores sell 60 percent of their ancient grains to people hoping to avoid the headaches, lethargy and diarrhea wheat products can induce in them.

People react poorly to some grain partly because they have allergic tendencies, but also because most Americans eat the same grains day in and day out for years on end until their systems rebel, says Eileen Yoder, Ph.D., director of the International Food Allergy Association in Oak Park, Ill. It's important to rotate foods," she says, adding that ancient grains such as spelt play an important role in allergy-free diets because most people aren't overexposed to them and more choices lengthens the food cycle. Yonder is writing a rotation diet book and researching the special dietary uses of the newest ancient grain, kamut (pronounced ka'-moot). In a world where what's new is what's old--really old--kamut appears to be headed for superstardom. Industry sources say kamut has everything it needs and more to reach the inner circle of ancient grains--unique nutritional qualities, applications in many forms and, very important for a newcomer, mystique.

Kamut is attracting attention because it is similar to wheat--among other things, it makes a very tasty whole-grain pasta with a firm texture favorably compared to that of whiteflour pastas--yet is said to be almost always harmless, even for people with severe wheat allergies. Yoder has one patient who has safely eaten kamut for more than a year, and Yoder is conducting extensive scientific tests on more than 100 people to determine how much of a role the grain can play. in allergy-free diets.

Quinn and his father, Mack, started growing kamut on their l,000-acre organic farm in 1978. But according to one legend, its story really begins in ancient Egypt.

A young airman who was stationed in Portugal in 1949 was offered 36 kernels of wheat reportedly taken from a tomb in the Nile valley near Dahshur, Egypt. The giant grains were about three times the size of modern wheat. He sent the grains home to his father, a farmer, who germinated 32 kernels and harvested 1,500 bushels within six years. Nobody paid much attention to the unusual grain, however, and it was scald as cattle feed and displayed as an oddity at country fairs. Mack Quinn planted a pint of it in his gardens in 1978, but despite early interest from a snack food company, it didn't garner much notice until the macrobiotic community learned about it at the NATURAL PRODUCTS EXPO WEST 86 in Anaheim, Calif.

The new-found interest led the Quinns to plaint 1.5 acres of the grain that year, naming it kaput after all ancient Egyptian word for wheat. About 20 acres of kamut were planted in 1987 and 60 acres in 1988. Although the Quinns now know that it is highly unlikely that the original kamut kernels came from an ancient tomb (scientists have never been able to germinate such aged seeds), it is believed to be very similar to wheat harvested at least 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. The market for it has grown exponentially. Bob Quinn and several farmers he contracts with will harvest 600 acres this year. To his knowledge, they are the , only farmers in the world raising kamut commercially. "It doesn't yield as well as our modern grains. But its nutritional qualities make it a valuable commodity," Quinn says.

Another ancient grain with promise is chia seed. Famous for its association with the chia pet novelities chia is mentioned in an Aztec herbal manuscript dating to 1552 A.D and was one of four crops most important to that ancient civilization, author Harrison Doyle writes in Golden Chia It was called "Indian Running Food" and hunters carried it with them for nourishment on long treks (one hunt involved chasing a deer until it collapsed from exhaustion. The hunters ate chia for energy).

Black in color and virtually flavorless, chia is in the mint family and grows wild in the Southwest United States and Mexico. It is high in protein--about 20 percent--and also contains about 30 percent fat,mostly Omega - 3 fatty acids, according to studies performed at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Chia doesn't bake well on its own, but one manufacturer in Escondido, Calif, uses it as an ingredient in corn chips, and other uses are being experimented with. Bob Anderson, president of HealthBest Inc., an importer/packager of chia, kamut and other grains in Escondido, says he recently baked corn bread using chia seeds rather than oil.

Chia is expensive--up to $7 a pound--because it must be harvested by hand. But Anderson is involved in a project to cultivate the nation's first crop of chia this year on 100 acres in Arizona, and he believes prices will drop as the seed becomes more popular. Anderson is confident that chia will become better known because, like kamut, "it's got a great history.

"The romance of it is what piques consumer interest,- he says. When something has a romance to it, people will read about it. And when they do that, they'll try it."

Once of the most exciting aspects of ancient grains is the promise of more to dome. Although botanists estimate that there are 80,000 edible plant species in the world, modern agriculture focuses on only about 150. Just 20 crops provide 90 percent of our consumption.

"Heaven only knows what a lot of these plants will do for us," Anderson says.

Copyright 1991

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