KANSAS CITY — More consumers are eating breakfast at home as COVID-19 has more and more people working at home. Companies looking to differentiate their breakfast products may explore ancient grains for innovative ideas.

Sorghum, millet, amaranth and teff are some of the ancient grains appearing in ready-to-eat cereal. Buckwheat offers texture and gluten-free aspects to pancakes and waffles. Quinoa remains a popular ancient grain, too.

“A number of ancient grains have proven to be extremely versatile in breakfast applications, both cooked as whole grains or milled into flour,” said Don Trouba, senior director go-to market for The Annex by Ardent Mills, a business of Denver-based Ardent Mills. “They offer a high level of culinary appeal and tie into several trends.

“For example, quinoa flour, flakes and blends are highly versatile — perfect for hot breakfast cereals and granola or included in multi-grain blend combinations to boost flavor and texture. They can also be used as toppings in everything from breads and bagels to bars and crackers.”

Healthy Food Ingredients, Fargo, ND, has seen continued demand for amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa and a resurgence in interest in sorghum, flax and millet, said Jay Johnson, chief operating officer for Healthy Food Ingredients, Fargo, ND.

“In general, ancient grains play into a whole grain, gluten-free trend while encompassing a clean and simple label,” he said.

Ready-to-eat cereal sales have surged during COVID-19. US retail sales in the category reached $9.3 billion in the 52-week period ended Nov. 29, 2020, which was up 8% from the previous 52-week period, according to Information Resources, Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm.

Sorghum, millet, amaranth and teff increasingly are being used as ingredients in cereal, said Alex Balafoutis, executive vice president for Western Foods, Woodland, Calif. Formulators should take the protein content of ancient grains into account when working with extruded cereal.

“The higher the protein the more difficult it is to get expansion and to get what I would call a texture that is pleasing to the mouth,” he said.

Sorghum and quinoa are examples of grains that are higher in protein.

“It just depends on what the marketer is trying to accomplish,” Mr. Balafoutis said. “The higher protein products certainly have different textures than the lower protein products. It’s really all about what are they targeting to the consumer? Is it nutritional? It is taste? Is it texture? Is it a combination?”

Ardent Mills offers a five-grain gluten-free flour made with quinoa, sorghum, millet, amaranth and teff that is perfect for a flour blend or in an extruded application, Mr. Trouba said.

‘Slightly sweet’ pancakes

Sorghum may be used in items like baking mixes, breakfast pancakes, waffles or other baked foods for a number of reasons, said Matt Cox, procurement manager for Western Foods.

“The flavor profile, it lends itself to work in a lot of different applications without dominating the flavor profile,” Mr. Cox said. “So it works well in something like a traditional pancake application where you’re looking for the fresh, quick bread-type of taste. It also has a similar starch composition to especially gluten-free formulations that are based around rice.”

Mr. Johnson said buckwheat provides a nutty sensory profile and plant-based proteins when incorporated into whole grain pancakes or waffles.

"In general, ancient grains play into a whole grain, gluten-free trend while encompassing a clean and simple label." 
— Jay Johnson, Healthy Food Ingredients,

Mr. Trouba said buckwheat flour is the most common ancient grain used in pancake and waffle recipes since it offers a light, airy texture.

“Teff provides a slightly sweet, molasses-like flavor that pairs well with other grains for pancakes, while spelt flour — an ancient variety of wheat – can serve as an easy replacement in many recipes that typically call for wheat flour,” he said. “Its sweet, nutty flavor makes it especially good for waffle recipes.”

Spelt can be an easy substitution for wheat flour in breakfast muffins that call for wheat flour, and bakers also find value in White Sonora for breakfast goods, Mr. Trouba said.

“White Sonora is an heirloom wheat with a buttery yellow color and a sweet flavor, making it ideal for muffins,” he said. “Other ancient grains can be used in muffins to add texture, or can be used as toppings, especially when flaked. Barley is another grain that has been used for thousands of years. As a flake or flour, it offers a unique appeal that is different from oats.”

Mr. Johnson said sorghum and millet provide a good sensory and texture profile for breakfast muffins and are also gluten-free.

Colin Garner, sales and marketing director for Western Foods, added, “The gluten-free kick has been growing for probably 12 years. The company (Western Foods) has grown significantly with that wave of gluten-free. We’re not seeing any pullback yet on gluten-free.”

Quinoa remains popular

Quinoa, which may be used in gluten-free applications, has grown in use over two-plus decades, Mr. Trouba said.

“It’s extremely versatile, can be used in a seemingly endless number of applications,” he said. “It’s known for its protein content, and it’s sustainable. These are just a few of the reasons why this grain is so popular.”

Millet, sorghum and chia are other ancient grains to watch, he said.

“We predict these will become increasingly popular due to their unique flavors, applications and versatility,” Mr. Trouba said. “Millet is ideal for blending with other grains and flours. Sorghum is highly versatile and can be formulated easily into baked goods. And finally, chia is known for nutritional value, and in particular, protein.

“Using these ancient grains, or ancient grains blended with conventional flour, can provide an easy way to add flavor, interest and texture to bread and baked goods.”

Mr. Johnson added, “Within the baking industry ancient grains are popular because they can address other trends or label claims, including whole grain, gluten-free, clean label, non-GMO, organic and plant-based proteins in serving as multi-purpose, functional ingredients.”