Modern markets for ancient grains

by Jeff Gelski
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With origins dating back thousands of years to Aztec, Incan and African civilizations, ancient grains offer exotic marketing appeal.

“Since there is not a regular definition of the term ancient grains, many use it in reference to lesser known grains that were cultivated prior to modern times,” said Robert Meyer, director of technical services for Dakota Specialty Milling, Inc., Fargo, N.D.

Protein and whole grain characteristics of the ancient grains offer a way to spark nutritional interest among 21st century consumers.

“Ancient grains contain all of the major nutrient groups — carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals, and in many cases have a much higher content than regular grains such as wheat, oats, barley and rye,” Mr. Meyer said. “For example, quinoa contains 50% more protein than common grains and higher levels of fat, calcium, phosphorus, iron and B vitamins.”

Each ancient grain offers unique health properties, said Mike Veal, vice-president of marketing for ConAgra Mills, Omaha.

“Quinoa, for example, is known for its high-quality protein content while teff is a notable source of calcium and magnesium,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work to understand the nutritional profiles of these grains, which allows us to create custom blends that meet targeted nutritional goals for customers.”

In its Ancient Grains line ConAgra Mills offers amaranth, which has historical ties to the Aztec civilization; millet, domesticated more than 4,000 years ago from a wild west African grass; quinoa, praised by the Incas as the “mother of all grains”; sorghum, which has historical ties to Africa; and teff, which has historical ties to Ethiopia.

Also of interest to food companies and consumers, some ancient grains, including amaranth, buckwheat, millet and teff, do not contain gluten, Mr. Meyer said.

“However, it is critical to qualify gluten-free claims due to potential contamination with gluten through the supply chain and during processing,” he said. “All of the ancient grains we utilize are in the whole grain form, and, depending on the product formulation, will support whole grain claims.”

Julie Miller Jones, a professor in the Food and Nutrition Department of the College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, Minn., added, “Any of the ancient grains used in products for the gluten-free market offer significant advantage over those that use rice, tapioca or corn starch-based in terms of dietary fiber and nutrients.

“Quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat are good sources of protein and have good amino acid balances, better than many other plant sources. They are also good sources of antioxidants.”

ConAgra Mills uses ancient grains as a base in developing the Eagle Mills gluten-free, all-purpose multigrain flour blend.

“Although amaranth, quinoa, sorghum, millet and teff are naturally gluten-free, we extensively test our products as they arrive from growers and before they leave the plant to confirm this and to ensure gluten-free integrity,” Mr. Veal said.

When analyzing whether to use ancient grains in their formulations, grain-based food company executives may wonder about supply and price — and rightfully so. Dakota Specialty Milling recently has seen a small increase in customer requests to incorporate ancient grains into their products, Mr. Meyer said. Cost and potential availability of larger volumes have been limiting factors.

“Economics play a key role in product development,” Mr. Meyer said. “Ancient grains are not well-known by the general consumer, but more are becoming aware of the unique nutritional benefits and look for these products in specialty stores or the health sections of grocery stores.”

Supplies have tightened over the past few years, he said, and food manufacturers thus may use low levels of ancient grains because of their prices.

“There may be marketing advantages to advertise that products contain ancient grains, but the nutritional improvements are usually minimal because of the low usage levels, especially in baked goods,” he said.

ConAgra Mills sources its ancient grains from a number of suppliers to ensure a consistent supply, Mr. Veal said.

“As with any grain market the prices of the individual ancient grains can fluctuate depending on factors such as crop success and overall demand,” he said. “And certainly demand for these products continues to increase thanks to growing interest in multigrain and gluten-free products.”

ConAgra Mills offers flours milled from the ancient grains, and the ancient grains also are used in multigrain blends.

“The product line, however, is truly unlimited,” Mr. Veal said. “We have the capability to create custom multigrain blends and also source other grains not part of our core offering, such as chia.”

Mr. Meyer said Dakota Specialty Milling has spelt, Kamut khorasan, amaranth, teff, quinoa, millet, buckwheat and barley available in blends, soft flour forms, flakes and hearty cut forms.

SK Food International, Fargo, offers amaranth, quinoa, spelt, millet and buckwheat in such forms as whole, pre-cooked flakes, flour and flakes. They may be used in such applications as bread, crackers, tortillas, baby foods, granola/nutritional bars and cereals. Customer interest in ancient grains has increased over the past two to three years, according to SK Food International.

Some milling awareness is needed when working with ancient grains. Amaranth and teff, because they are small round grains, may create issues when milling or processing, Mr. Meyer said.

“For these two grains we offer blends with either the whole form or a whole meal flour form,” he said.

Mr. Veal of ConAgra said, “The key to remember when working with these grains is that they are gluten-free, so they don’t offer any functionality or traditional applications like yeast-raised bread. Developing products like that require additional techniques and ingredients, which is something we’ve studied extensively and have shared with customers.”

Ms. Jones added, “Each grain presents its own challenges, and this would be a learning process for the end user. There is less literature and experience in wide use of most of these. Also, we would need to monitor things like aflatoxin and other potential problems just as we do with traditional grains.”

Flavor may be a plus when using ancient grains.

“Many have stronger flavors from the phenolics that give them some health properties,” Ms. Jones said. “Some, such as chia, have flavors that not all would immediately love.”

Mr. Meyer added, “Ancient grains have distinctive flavor profiles, and some say are more flavorful than standard grains because they have remained virtually the same for thousands of years.”

Recently introduced Journey Bars from Journey Bar, Inc., Chicago, include the ancient grains amaranth and millet. The amaranth is toasted to bring out a mild, slightly nutty flavor in both Journey Bar varieties: Parmesan Romano and coconut curry. The two ancient grains have had no impact on shelf life, according to Journey Bar.

The Health Valley brand, owned by Hain Celestial Group, Inc., Boulder, Colo., includes Organic Amaranth Flakes cereal.

“Today, modern science confirms that amaranth is truly a ‘super grain,’“ the company said. “Amaranth is rich in lysine, one of the essential amino acids that is usually low in other grains. It contains three times as much fiber and five times as much iron as wheat, and has more than 12 different vitamins and minerals. From a nutritional standpoint, it is clear why the Aztecs referred to amaranth as a ‘wonder grain.’“

Combinations of ancient grains are finding their way into grain-based products, too. A natural ancient grains bread variety under the Arnold brand includes quinoa, Kamut khorasan, spelt and amaranth.

Mr. Meyer of Dakota Specialty Milling said grain-based food companies should take note of the amount of ancient grains found in each product.

“Ancient grains, when used as minor additions to base formulas, typically contribute similar properties as standard grains,” he said. “However, using larger volumes in a formula may require more detailed evaluations of the impact on appearance and product properties.”

Grain’s lore involves King Tut, Noah

Bob Quinn first heard khorasan wheat referred to as “King Tut’s wheat.” Later he listened to stories about Noah storing the grain on his ark.

While finding it difficult to authenticate the stories, Mr. Quinn has achieved success promoting khorasan’s benefits as an inclusion in grain-based foods. He serves as the president and founder of Kamut International with Kamut being a brand name for khorasan.

Similar to durum, khorasan mills like durum, Mr. Quinn said. It has high levels of protein, between 12.5% to 14.5%, and selenium. More than 150 organic farmers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana and North Dakota grow the Kamut brand on about 60,000 acres. To use the Kamut brand, the farmers must agree to never mix the ancient grain with modern wheat. In North America, Kamut’s greatest use is in cold cereal, followed by bread and then pasta, Mr. Quinn said.

While Mr. Quinn, age 63, is president of Kamut International, his nephew, Trevor Blyth, has become chief executive officer. Stockholders of Kamut International all are family members, Mr. Quinn said.

Kamut never has been grown for high yield, Mr. Quinn said. Kamut International would need a couple years of advance planning to build up enough supply for a big, multinational company, Mr. Quinn said.

“It could be done,” he said. “But it’s not something where you just go out in the market and buy rail cars full.”

Supply has increased over the past few decades. Mr. Quinn first heard about khorasan in school when it was called “King Tut’s wheat” at a fair. He started growing it in 1986, originally on a half acre, and researching it.

His travels to Egypt, where khorasan probably originated thousands of years ago, made Mr. Quinn doubtful about the King Tut story. Einkhorn wheat may have been in the tomb instead, he said.

In travels to Turkey and Armenia, Mr. Quinn kept hearing people tell stories about a biblical man storing khorasan on his boat.

“It’s a little bit hard to research Noah these days,” Mr. Quinn said.

In 2011, research continues on the health benefits of khorasan. Mr. Quinn said it appears to have digestion-resistant starch in it along with a high level of antioxidants.

A study appearing in the Jan. 1 issue of Frontiers in Bioscience involved researchers from the University of Bologna in Italy, evaluating and comparing the effects of whole grain durum wheat bread and whole grain Kamut khorasan bread on the antioxidant status in rats. They used sourdough and baker’s yeast as bread-making processes of the whole grain Kamut khorasan. Both wheat durum and Kamut khorasan were shown to be good sources of antioxidants.

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