The Ancient Grains Mystery

Research and Report on Ancient Grains – 10/08/2017

There is a great deal of interest regarding Ancient Grains in the Baking industry these days, adding new flavours to our meals and putting us in touch with a more natural way of life. Products containing these grains are gaining momentum and becoming more popular in the marketplace. 

‘Ancient Grains’ seems to be more of a marketing term/strategy than any kind of qualified designation, often ‘Alternative Grains’ is another label given to these or similar grains, leading to a fair amount of confusion.

There is currently no official definition for what constitutes an ancient grain. The widely accepted loose definition is that grains which remain largely unchanged in the method of cultivation used over the last several hundred years or only recently imported by the western world would be considered Ancient.

This leaves much open to interpretation; It can be influenced by the historic cultural perception of a product irrespective of the processes in its production. What degree of modernised methods marks the differentiation between a product being acceptably ancient or not? I have sourced several explanations below which roughly present the idea of what classifies an Ancient Grain.

  • Modern wheat (constantly bred and changed) is not an ancient grain, while einkorn, emmer/farro, Kamut®, and spelt would be considered ancient grains in the wheat family. Heirloom varieties of other common grains — such as black barley, red and black rice, blue corn — might also be considered ancient grains. Other grains largely ignored until recently by Western palates (such as sorghum, teff, millet, quinoa, amaranth) would also be widely considered to be ancient grains. Sometimes less common grains, like buckwheat, or wild rice, are also included (World Grains Council). [1]
  • It refers to the ancient types of grains that have only recently been ‘discovered’ by the West, but these heritage grains have been grown by different communities the world over.[2]
  • They are grains “that have come down to us largely intact, as opposed to grains that have been extensively modified and cross-bred more recently.” – Cynthia Harriman – Director of Food and Nutrition strategies – World Grain Council [3]
  • Theoretically, ancient grains are plants (not necessarily grains – quinoa, for example, is actually a seed) which have been cultivated for centuries, even millennia, in the same way. Most plants and grain, like domesticated animals and animals used for food have been selectively bred in recent centuries for a variety of reasons. Most ancient grains claim to be “virtually” unchanged over the centuries, or “practically” unchanged. In other words, ancient grains are simply plants which have long been popular many places on earth (and among “ancient” populations), though they may be new or new-ish as a food import. [4]
  • There is no official definition of ancient grains but it is widely accepted to mean grains which have remained unchanged for several hundreds of years. As opposed to more widespread cereals such as corn, rice and modern varieties of wheat, which are the product of thousands of years of selective breeding. [5]

Hopefully this provides some clarity into what defines an ancient grain. While there remains to be no officially endorsed definition there will be debate as to whether or not a grain can be classed as ancient. Some are more evidently in that category, however others are more marginal.

List of grains more readily accepted as Ancient Grains;

  • Teff
  • Amaranth
  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Spelt
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur
  • Sorghum
  • Farro (Emmer)
  • Kamut
  • Einkorn

Grains which could be considered ancient when applying a broader outlook;

  • Polenta
  • Wheat Berries
  • Freekah
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Wild Rice
  • Kaniwa







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