Every seed has the potential to become a plant, carrying in its germ all the elements needed for growth, including the starch it uses as an energy source. And while a generation ago "whole grain" was synonymous with whole wheat, today's consumer eagerly accepts a variety of whole grains with different tastes, textures, and nutrient content.
"Variety is the key to gaining mainstream acceptance of whole grains into the American diet," says Cassidy Stockton, marketing specialist for Bob's Red Mill Natural Foods (www.bobsredmill.com), Milwaukie, Ore. "If an individual doesn't care for brown rice, they may find that quinoa is a much more interesting alternative that cooks faster and can be used in much the same way."
Quinoa is a perfect example of how rapidly the domestic palate expanded when it came to whole grains. The ancient South American staple — actually a seed from a plant related to tumbleweeds — went from obscure to nearly mainstream in short order once the marketing strategy of "ancient" and "heritage" grains took hold. The group of whole grains collectively known as "ancient grains," grains with a history of supporting the health of ancient civilizations, held allure to a consumer recognizing the need to incorporate whole grains into the diet but bored by ubiquitous whole wheat.
When processors began to incorporate some of these ingredients into mainstream-type products — for instance, the Sunrise line of RTE cereals with amaranth from Nature's Path Foods Inc. -- the public had a familiar vehicle to facilitate trying the unfamiliar grains.
"I believe as more and more people try these ancient grains, we will [continue to] see an increase in their consumption," says Stockton. "These grains are not available as refined, so anyone who is interested in amaranth [for example] is getting whole-grain amaranth, which would be a much healthier option over refined white rice," adds Stockton.
Health is the significant value of these ingredients. Not only do whole grains have more fiber, they contain more minerals, phytochemicals and often more protein than mainstream grains. Barley is particularly high in protein and has enjoyed a resurgence in use by processors for both this reason and its already established familiarity to consumers.
Of course, the gluten-free movement gave alternative grains a big shot in the arm. Although only 2-3 percent of Americans are medically diagnosed as having Celiac disease or being sensitive or allergic to that protein portion of a grain called gluten, 10 times that many are buying in to a gluten-free lifestyle. Whether due to misinformation, incomplete information or just food faddism, it's boosted the use of alternative grains significantly.
Of course some wheat is of ancient origin and can be included in this novel and nutritious class of whole grains. "Right now the biggest attention is on the ancient and specialty wheats, especially einkorn, emmer-farro and freekeh," says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways/The Whole Grains Council (www.oldwayspt.org), Boston. Products with the Whole Grain Stamp continue to grow and now number more than 6,000 products in 23 countries.
Meanwhile, grains such as sorghum and millet, once used predominantly for animal feed, got very little attention until recently. "Spelt and kamut were 'first wave' heirloom wheats, but now this second wave is getting all the attention," Harriman explains. "We've recently seen the first nationwide commercial einkorn products — pasta from Jovial Foods-Bionaturae, for example — and Greenwheat Freekeh is definitely the new darling of top-end restaurants."
Freekeh is the roasted unripe (green) wheat berry of an older cultivar of wheat grown in Israel and Lebanon. It's sun-dried and fire-roasted and used in pilafs or as a complete substitute for rice. According to Harriman, anecdotal evidence suggests older species of wheat could be better tolerated by persons with wheat sensitivities, and a small body of research does back up differences in digestion of different wheat cultivars.
Spelt, one of the most common "alternative" grains used in processing, is a direct relative of wheat but has been known to have little or no effect on some persons with gluten sensitivity. When scientists in Shizuoka, Japan, screened 324 varieties of wheat from around the world in an effort to find varieties less likely to trigger allergies to gluten, gliadin and alpha-amylase inhibitor, they discovered einkorn, as well as rare varieties from Mexico, Ecuador, China and Italy, were found to be among the least allergenic.
"Whole grains will still garner attention from those looking to improve their health through their diet," says Stockton. "Additionally, Americans are increasingly interested in food culture and ancient grains are seeing resurgence in popularity for being 'new and different.' As people continue to explore new foods, these grains will be found in more and more items."