Grains are a healthy necessity in everyone's diet, and at least half of our daily grains should be whole grains, says the Grain Foods Foundation (www.grainfoodsfoundation.org). But it's the ancient variety that is growing in popularity because of its health benefits and complex flavors.
Quinoa, amaranth, farro, teff and spelt are increasing in case shipments, according to the NPD Group (www.npd.com). Case shipments to U.S. foodservice outlets jumped by double digits over 2017, the market research firm says.
Although cold cereal sales are a bit soggy in the U.S. today, there's no lack of innovation in the cereal space when it comes to ancient grains. With 17g of ancient grains like kamut wheat, spelt and quinoa, Cheerios + Ancient Grains from General Mills (www.generalmills.com) incorporates toasted whole-grain oats and quinoa as lightly sweetened clusters. It's also low in fat (2g), low in saturated fat and cholesterol free.
Ancient Harvest (ancientharvest.com) says it was the first brand to bring quinoa to the U.S., more than 30 years ago. While still using quinoa, the company has expanded its offerings to other plant-based superfoods, including amaranth, millet, beans and lentils. No longer relegated to the "healthy" aisle or to small health food stores, its products are sold across the country in mainstream supermarkets.
Its organic Quinoa Flakes can be used in muffins, to make a hot cereal and as a gluten-free substitute for conventional breadcrumbs. Cereal manufacturers of all types have noticed the health halo associated with whole grains, which bodes well for ancient grains like quinoa because it's so versatile, says Geoff Stella, vice president of marketing at Ancient Grains. "Quinoa has become popular over the past five to 10 years," he says. "It a great source of plant-based protein and it’s one of the rare, complete plant-based proteins on earth. Nine of proteins' amino acids are 'essential' because our bodies can’t make them. Quinoa supplies them all."
Nature's Path (www.naturespath.com) offers organic Flax Plus Multigrain Flakes in various flavors and Sunrise Vanilla, which teams corn, rice, flax, amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa.
The quest for quinoa
Probably the most popular of the ancient grains today is quinoa. NPD reports shipments of quinoa, the most widely used of the ancients, climbed by 18.5 percent in the year ending October 2017, compared to the same period a year earlier.
Because of its superior nutrition, quinoa can play an important role in eradicating hunger, malnutrition and poverty, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which made 2013 "the International Year of Quinoa." What sets it apart from other plant foods is that it’s one of the few vegetarian source of all essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins. It’s also gluten-free and a grain that has never been genetically modified.
Quinoa's so popular, it's practically mainstream. Chipotle Mexican Grill added quinoa to the menu at its test kitchen in New York City. The dish is made with red and gold quinoa, citrus juice, cumin, and cilantro, and will be recommended as an addition to salad or in place of rice with an entree, reported Business Insider.
Gogo Quinoa now offers Super Grains Pasta made with a nutrition-packed blend of chia, quinoa, sorghum and amaranth. The new pasta is certified organic, gluten-free and vegan. Unlike traditional pasta made with refined wheat flour, the super grains, specifically the quinoa, make this pasta a good source of fiber and iron, with each serving containing 5g of protein.
Mondelez's globally inspired Vea seed crackers and World Crisps line include an Andean Quinoa and Spices variety, made with whole-grain red quinoa sourced from the Andes Mountains.
Even Stouffer's Fit Kitchen frozen bowl entrees have some quinoa, along with meat, brown rice, black beans and vegetables.
Quinoa is even going to the dogs. The Honest Kitchen (www.thehonestkitchen.com) developed a Chicken & Quinoa food as well as Beef & Chickpea, Duck & Sweet Potato, and Fish & Coconut blends. Blue Buffalo Co. (bluebuffalo.com), created a Chicken & Quinoa Ancient Grains recipe.
Spelt, amaranth, pinole and more
Spelt, a distinct whole-grain wheat known as hulled wheat, has been in the U.S. since the 1800s. Until recently, it primarily was used for animal feed, but it’s become more popular for humans due to its flavor and nutritional benefits.
Spelt has a nutty flavor and tastes similar to barley, although it's somewhat chewy and stays fluffy after cooking. A half-cup of cooked spelt contains about 120 calories, 25g of carbohydrates, 4g of fiber and 6g of protein. Spelt can be used like any other grain, in soups, stews and baked goods, bars and other recipes if made into flour.
Spelt and faro -- which is similar to barley and often used in salads, soups and casseroles -- as well as wheat berries have seen double-digit increases in case shipments to restaurants and foodservice outlets, NPD says.
Farro has a creamy texture and buttery flavor quickly making it a favorite with restaurant chefs. Low in gluten but not gluten-free, spelt is often favored by those who cannot tolerate wheat. However, the grain is not typically used in bread production. "The increasing popularity of ancient grains at foodservice outlets is partly due to consumer interest in the grains, but also because chefs appreciate the unique flavors of these grains," points out Annie Roberts, vice president of NPD's Supply Track. "It just proves that everything ancient becomes new again."
Last month's Natural Products Expo West show unveiled a slew of products featuring ancient grains. Lundberg Family Farms (lundberg.com), known for its crunchy, grainy rice chip snack, expanded its Grounded Snacks line with organic Grain Bites. The new puffed, crunchy snacks use amaranth and sorghum flour plus other whole grains and brown rice. They come in aged Parmesan, vegan Garlic & Herb, vegan Smoky Sweet BBQ, vegan Vanilla Chai and White Cheddar & Jalapeño.
Another grain cultivated by the Aztecs more than 500 years ago for energy and endurance, pinole is made from a rare variety of ancient purple maize, which is roasted for a rich, nutty flavor. A great source of antioxidants, protein, fiber and whole grains, pinole is being used by Native State Foods (nativestatefoods.com) in its Purely Pinole breakfast and snack line. Non-GMO, gluten-free and low in sugar, new Purely Pinole Grab & Go Snack Cups come in Chocolate Mocha, Maqui Berry + Coconut + Almond, Berry Boost and Brown Sugar + Cinnamon. Simply add water, stir, microwave and eat for a quick breakfast or snack.
Baked Grain Bites is a light, airy snack made from brown rice, sorghum and amaranth. They are offered in a variety of flavors containing 21g of whole grains per serving. They’re also USDA organic, non-GMO and gluten-free, providing a crispy whole-grain snack in five spicy, savory or sweet varieties.
Teff is a grain used in traditional Ethiopian cooking for thousands of years. Tiny in size (less than 1 mm in diameter) but mighty in nutrition, teff is relatively new to developing countries but has been a primary ingredient in the flat Ethopian bread injera. It’s packed with iron, manganese and calcium, which make it a healthy, weight-managing, bone-strengthening food. It can be grown pretty much anywhere because it can survive both wet and dry climates. With great elasticity, teff can be used in place of other grains.
Gluten-free teff has a mild, nutty flavor and is a good source of iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc. One of the oldest domesticated plants and arguably one of the most nutritious grains available, teff contains all essential amino acids, a rarity in grains, as well as several micronutrients, including calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, copper, zinc and thiamin. It also contains high levels of lysine, an amino acid that helps build and maintain muscle tissue. Teff is available in 24-oz. bags from Bob's Red Mill, and can be used in stews, breads, porridge, on its own, as a flour or mixed with vegetables or other grains.
Ancient grains are being blended into several snacks, such as Pure Organic's (shop.pureorganic.com) vegan Organic Ancient Grain & Nut Bars and B&G Foods' baked pita chips under the New York Style (newyorkstyle.com) brand. The baked pita chips include flaxseed, millet, whole amaranth, cracked buckwheat and whole quinoa.
Breads, wraps and cereals are also being made with sprouted ancient grains. The sprouting process is said to increase the amounts and bio-availability of some vitamins (like vitamin C) and minerals, as well as ﬁber, making sprouted grains a potential nutrition powerhouse. Food For Life's (www.foodforlife.com) Ezekiel organic sprouted whole grain cereals, muffins and breads are packed with fiber and many have ancient grains such as spelt and millet.
Way Better Snacks is using sprouted grains to enhance the flavor, textures and color of two new snacks: Simply Sprouted sweet potato corn tortilla chips, made with sprouted flax seeds, chia, and quinoa, and Sprouted Barley crackers.
Smart Flour Foods (www.smartflourfoods.com) uses sorghum (full of insoluble fiber), amaranth and teff in its frozen pizzas, burger buns and gluten-free pizza crusts.
"Today’s health-conscious parents are placing extra care into the food choices they make for their family and seeking out healthier options that don’t sacrifice great taste," says Smart Flour's president and CEO Charlie Pace.
New formats of heirloom grains are also popping into the market in the form of flakes, flour, grain crisps and individual quick-frozen varieties, the last for quick-cooking and frozen food formulations. They can be used as inclusions and coatings, in sauces and as toppings. And colorful red quinoa, red, yellow, orange and bronze sorghum, light ivory, purple to dark reddish brown teff and purple and blue barley can liven up a dish without adding calories, sodium or fat.