Rising demand for ancient grains

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

Quinoa is grown in the Andes and is increasingly popular among UK consumers
Quinoa is grown in the Andes and is increasingly popular among UK consumers

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For many years now, the ‘ancient grain’ has been expected to take Europe by storm. Nicholas Robinson discovers what’s been happening

Key points

From the early noughties, analysts have predicted the rise of the ‘ancient grain’. And while talk of their increased popularity has been bandied around for a decade or so, how popular have they actually become?

Ancient grains, which are sometimes called ‘heritage grains’, are grains that have remained unchanged for millennia. Although called grains, many ancient seeds, such as amaranth, also fall into the category (see here​).

In 2008, market researcher Mintel stated that grains such as quinoa, teff, millet and kamut would become increasingly popular, as manufacturers tapped into emerging health trends.

However, some ancient grains are novel foods and are not approved for use in the EU without novel foods approval. This means that, unless they have a significant history of consumption in the EU prior to May 15 1997, which is when the novel foods approval process first came into force, they cannot be used.

Rising demand (Return to top)

This year, analysts from Euromonitor International, Leatherhead Food Research and Innova Market Insights have all reported continued consumer interest in ancient grains. At the same time, companies such as EHL Ingredients, Glanbia Nutritionals and CSM Bakery Supplies have all launched ancient grain products.

“Initially, the interest started in the US some years ago and then Europe started to use ​[ancient grains] in food products for two reasons,”​ says Yves Vantomme, Glanbia Nutritionals’ business development manager for ingredient technologies.

“Mostly, ancient grains have excellent nutritional qualities – such as being higher in omega-3s – but they have functional properties too and are usually low in gluten or are gluten-free​ [GF].”

The top ancient grains experts have predicted to be of interest to the food and drink industry include spelt, kamut, quinoa, amaranth, chia, sorghum, freekeh, teff and millet.

Glanbia Nutritionals has launched chia-, sorghum-, amaranth- and quinoa-containing ingredients this year, but has also committed to another – arguably less glamorous – ancient grain, which is the oat.

Glanbia is serious about oats and last year built a new GF oat milling plant in Ireland – following a multi-million pound investment – to process its new GF OatPure product.

“The GF market is expanding rapidly and, as such, offers great potential as we see consumers opting for gluten-free choices in pursuit of a healthy diet,”​ says Carla Clissmann, regional director of Glanbia Nutritionals.

New mill (Return to top)

At the new mill, oats are refined and milled to various sizes and specifications. They are also being milled to have no more than 10 parts per million (ppm) gluten, which is half the 20ppm required to comply with the EU 828/2014 standard for gluten-free oats.

Yet, Glanbia is focusing on only one of the draws most ancient grains have to offer, according to Alice Cadman, director of business development and marketing at Leatherhead Food Research. “Ancient grains incorporate the current food trends for authenticity, heritage, ‘naturalness’ and the back-to-basics approach to food,”​ she claims.

GF may have reached its peak, she argues. “But it has also opened up many consumers’ eyes to GF options, such as alternative grains and pulses.”

Although Glanbia has ventured down the GF route with OatPure, Simone Baroke, an analyst with Euromonitor International, believes the ‘less glamorous’ ancient grains, such as oats and barley, have a lot more going for them and can give their more exotic cousins, such as quinoa and teff, a run for their money.

Consumers (Return to top)

Grains such as oats and barley have fallen out of favour with consumers, who are opting instead for the likes of quinoa and spelt, claims Baroke. “However, in today’s challenging economic climate, wellness-orientated consumers are increasingly seeking out more economically priced, traditional superfoods.”

Consumers looking to eat differently, while still counting their pennies, may turn to oats and barley more, which are high in fibre, vitamins B1 and B3, protein and manganese, she believes.

“Oats have managed to stage a highly successful comeback over the past two decades, based on their health credentials, and there is no reason why barley should not aspire to do likewise.

“Barley​ [also] happens to be rich in beta-glucan, a soluble fibre which has reliably shown to lower blood cholesterol levels.”

Despite what oats and barley have to offer, consumers are undeniably more interested in the allure of their more glamorous counterparts, because of their popularity in the mainstream media.

Money to be made (Return to top)

Increased consumer interest in ancient grains has led one of the UK’s few ancient grain-dedicated milling operations to invest in expansion.

Michael and Clare Marriage are the husband and wife team that founded Doves Farm Foods, a specialist flour milling and bakery outfit based in Berkshire. The pair launched the company in 1988 to mill spelt. Doves Farm Foods now specialises in many organic ancient grain wholemeal flours, including kamut.

Consumer interest in better, more authentic flavours are driving the demand for ancient grain flours, says Clare Marriage, who is chief executive of the £15M turnover business.

“Cake baking and indeed bread making have undergone something of a revival in recent years, driven partly by the success of programmes such as the​ [BBC’s television show the] Great British Bake Off,”​ she explains. “There’s no doubt that, when​ [judge] Paul Hollywood uses spelt flour, we see an uplift in our sales of it.”

Doves Farm Foods has proved a success in the 26 years since the business was founded. It mills around 12,000t of various ancient grain flours each year. “If sales of spelt are anything to go by, the future of this sector looks strong. Demand for spelt increased by 20% last year, resulting in a shortage of the grain for milling,”​ she explains.

However, the west’s increasing appetite for ancient grains is having an adverse effect on the parts of the world where some are predominantly grown, Cadman points out.

Globally, launches of ancient grain-containing products swelled last year. Products containing chia rose by 140% on 2012 levels, quinoa by 104%, kamut by 78% and buckwheat by 76%, she adds.

Quinoa’s rise to stardom in the west has affected the diets of Peruvians, where the grain is a staple. “Historically,​ [quinoa] is grown in the Andes, but it could be a successful crop in British soils,” ​says Cadman.

“Moreover, this may give the Peruvians back their staple, after increased demand​ [from the west] meant the prices skyrocketed.”

Whether or not it would be worth investing in the facilities to grow more ancient grains in Europe remains to be seen, especially since nobody is expecting them to replace the west’s current staple grains, such as wheat. “But, because of their fit with current consumer trends and health benefits, they’ll become more commonly used ingredients for the future,”​ Cadman predicts.

Like Cadman, Glanbia Nutritionals’ Vantomme is also optimistic about the future of ancient grains. “Their traditional, health and functional associations will drive their use in food and drink products further – especially as consumers become more demanding of what they want their foods to do for them.”

The facts about ‘exotic’ ancient grains (Return to top)

Amaranth:​ First discovered in Mesoamerica, amaranth has been cultivated for nearly 8,000 years and is not a grain, but a pseudo-cereal high in calcium and vitamin C. It has a significant history of consumption in Europe prior to May 15 1997 and is not a novel food.

Buckwheat:​ Despite its name, buckwheat is not a wheat. It is more closely related to sorrel, knotweed and rhubarb. It has a significant history of consumption in Europe prior to May 15 1997 and is not a novel food.

Chia:​ Chia has been the source of much debate in Europe and can be used only in bread products, as long as it makes up 5% or less of the final product. It is a novel food.

Freekeh:​ It’s Arabic translation means “to rub”,​ which refers to the process in which it’s prepared. Young green grains are picked, dried and roasted before having their husks rubbed off. There is no record of consumption in the EU and freekeh may be novel.

Kamut:​ Kamut is grown over 32,374ha in Montana in the US, and Saskatchewan and Alberta in Canada. It is high in protein and lipids. There is no record of consumption in the EU and it may be novel.

Millet:​ It is usually fed to animals in the west. There is no significant history of consumption of millet in the EU by humans and will need to be authorised for use.

Quinoa:​ The tiny quinoa seeds are not a true cereal. They are high in protein and are gluten-free. They have a significant history of consumption in the EU prior to May 15 1997 and are not a novel food.

Sorghum:​ This cereal grain originated in Africa and is still a staple food in Africa and India. Some strains are claimed to be high in antioxidants and sorghum husks are edible. It is not a novel food.

Spelt:​ Also known as ‘dinkel wheat’ or ‘hulled wheat’, spelt is a species of wheat. It was an important staple in several parts of Europe from the Bronze Age until medieval times. It has a significant history of consumption in Europe prior to May 15 1997 and is therefore not considered a novel food.

Teff:​ Sometimes called ‘William’s Lovegrass’ teff is native to Northern Ethiopia and is a source of vitamin C. It has a significant history of consumption in the EU prior to May 15 1997 and is not a novel food.

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