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ancient grains
African gram or Three-lobe-leaf cowpea- Vigna trilobata flower with Plains Cupid (Chilades pandava) in Hyderabad, by J.M.Garg, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.


Ancient Grains Gain Popularity As The World Warms

These resilient crops pack a nutritional punch and provide more protein, fiber, and vitamins than modern grains. They’re also a whole lot better for the planet.

You’ve likely heard of the importance of consuming whole grains. They raise good cholesterol levels while lowering bad cholesterol and triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood. There’s a different type of whole grain that you should consider, too: ancient grains. Unlike some modern wheat products, they haven’t been genetically modified or bred.

As the planet warms, drought tolerant and highly nutritious crops can infuse humans with more dietary stability. The FAO says that, of some 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 contribute substantially to global food output and only 9 account for 66% of total crop production.

That’s because farmers have chosen crops with the largest yields. Today, just 3 crops – rice, wheat, and corn – provide nearly half of the world’s calories. That reliance on a small number of crops has made agriculture vulnerable to pests, plant-borne diseases, and soil erosion, all of which thrive on monoculture – the practice of growing only one crop at a time.

It has also meant losing out on the resilience other crops show in surviving drought and other natural disasters.

But did you know that, among those 6,000 cultivated plant species, there are grains that have remained broadly unchanged over several hundred years? As the impacts of the climate crisis become starker, farmers across the world are rediscovering ancient crops and developing new hybrids that might prove more hardy in the face of drought or epidemics while also offering important nutrients.

From the more commonly recognized barley, spelt, and farro, to the lesser known kamut, teff, and sorghum, ancient grains are a grouping of grains and cereals that date back to prehistoric times. They’ve managed to remain relatively whole and untouched by the modern food industry, especially in comparison to certain other wheat and corn varieties.

In the 1940s, for example, more than 5 million acres of cowpeas were grown in the US, primarily for hay to feed livestock. Also known as black-eyed peas, these highly drought tolerant plants arrived in the Americas from west Africa. As scientists look for alternative crops, it becomes increasingly important to identify ones where the entire plant is edible, and cowpeas’ leaves and pods are also a good source of protein.

The global ancient grains market was estimated at $496 million in 2021, and it is expected to reach $6796 million by 2028, with a compound annual rate of growth (CARG) of 36.6% from 2022-2028. Certainly, Covid shutdowns affected all food and beverage sectors, but demand has remained mostly intact for ancient grains. As the need for healthy and organic food increases, the ancient grains market fuels up. It also delivers great consistency and flavor to the products. Ancient grains are also utilized in cosmetics, medical industries, and pharmaceuticals, separated from food.

Ancient grains have gained recent attention as more food importers search for new foods to appeal to changing western palettes. An ancient grain hasn’t been refined like white rice, white bread, or white flour. Thus, they tend to be higher in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and zinc because they haven’t been stripped. They’re also a good source of fiber.

  • Amaranth and quinoa have obtained significant interest because of their gluten free property. Gluten is found in such as wheat, barley, and rye. Its main objective is to give the dough its elasticity, further utilized to create a line of products by imparting a chewy texture and maintaining its shape. However, this protein is not appropriate for every consumer, resulting in different health related problems.
  • Chia can be considered a functional food because it increases satiety index and controls cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory and nervous system diseases, and diabetes — apart from contributing to human nutrition.
  • Bulgar, pseudocereals, Khorasan wheat, and freekeh have never been processed via genetic changes or hybridizations.
  • Millet and sorghum reduce the possibilities of diabetes and other chronic diseases such as asthma and arthritis.
  • Kamut was a grain found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb.

The sector also contains smaller commodities, such as sesame seeds, kidney beans, lentils, and specialty products such as quinoa, teff, and spelt. High value nutritious seeds like pumpkin, hemp, and chia seeds fall into the ancient grains category, as do mung beans and adzuki beans.

Why are ancient grains better for the environment? Ancient grains generally do not require fertilizers, pesticides, or irrigation. Consequently, it appeals to consumers who prefer organic products, fueling the ancient grains market.

Why should we consider eating these grains? These grains offer higher nutritional importance than modern grains such as corn, rice, and wheat; they are extremely excellent sources of fiber and protein. Some of the ancient grains reduce obesity through weight loss. They also add better flavor and textural appeal to recipes.

What are some companies that sell ancient grains? Prominent players in the global ancient grains market include Ardent Mills, Snyer’s-Lance Inc., Crunchmaster Inc., SK Food International, Purely Elizabeth Inc., Quinoasure Inc., Great River Organic Milling Inc., Urbane Grain Inc., Nature’s Path Food, and GFB Great Foods.

Are any mainstream companies turning to ancient grains? Barilla has introduced a line of one ingredient legume pasta from chickpeas or red legumes, with the company goal to cater to tap into the newly developing plant based protein and fiber foods market. The company launched a line of products, including red lentil rotini, red lentil penne, chickpea rotini, and chickpea pasta.

Final Thoughts about Ancient Grains

We live in a time in which temperatures rise and habitats shrink. We risk losing thousands of global plant and animal species. For the first time, the US has designated a special diplomat to advocate for global biodiversity amid what policymakers here and overseas increasingly recognize as an extinction crisis. Monica Medina has been announced by the State Department as assuming the new role of special envoy for biodiversity and water resources. This new position is part of an increasing awareness of the climate crisis and the ways that we can work to mitigate its effects.

Seeking out ancient grains is another method. When you incorporate ancient grains into your recipes, you can envision peoples from long ago doing the same, and you make keener connections to nature and others.

What kind of recipes use ancient grains? Almost everything can incorporate ancient grains: from cereals, salads, loaves of bread, and crackers to pizza, quiche, bars, shakes, and yogurts.

Let’s end with some recipes from FeedFeed that celebrate ancient grains, shall we?

I know what I’m doing this weekend — trying some of these new and yummy recipes derived from ancient grains!

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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