"Ancient grains" have been officially mainstream since January of this year, when they got their own Cheerios version in the US. The likes of quinoa, spelt, and teff are turning up more and more, always with a hint that they're healthier than boring old wheat or corn. Image from Slowfoodlife.
The marketing of ancient grains is a master class in implying what you can't quite say: Labels don't actually claim the products are healthier. Like other trendy terms, there's a grain of truth behind the implication. Ancient grains have fibre, we're told. They have protein! They are whole grains! That's all true, but no more so of ancient grains than their modern counterparts. Foods made with ancient grains come in beige boxes with green accents, which has somehow become shorthand for "this is a healthy, natural, probably organic food."
But none of that makes the ancient grains healthier than the wheat (or corn, or rice) they are replacing. Take the Ancient Grains Cheerios, for example: compared to original oat-based Cheerios, the ancient grains version has the same amount of protein (3g per serving), and less fibre (2g instead of 3g). It's also "lightly sweetened" with 5g of sugar instead of the single gram in the original. From a purely nutritional standpoint, you're actually better off buying regular Cheerios.
Ancient grains are delicious and nutritious. I enjoy farro salad and wouldn't dream of eating Ethiopian food without its teff-based flatbread. But it's time to call the marketers' bluff: an exotic name, a beige box, and a price premium don't make a product more wholesome.
Meet the Ancient Grains
"Ancient" grains get their name because they haven't been selectively bred to the same extent as modern staple crops. A grain of teff grown today is more similar to its wild ancestors than a grain of today's wheat is to the einkorn and emmer it descended from.
The ancient grains are also, simply, less popular and thus more exotic-sounding than more common grains. Corn, rice, and wheat make up most of the world's grain production, and "Contains corn!" just isn't very catchy these days.
Some of the ancient grains are varieties of wheat, making them"cereal grains" just like their mainstream cousins. (Rice and corn are also considered to be cereal grains, or in other words, the grains we think of when we think of grains.) Others, like quinoa, are considered pseudocereals -- they look and taste like cereal grains, but they aren't part of the grass family. For some reason this is an important point mentioned in all articles about quinoa and its pseudocereal buddies. If you ever meet someone who cares deeply about this, I recommend you blow their mind by informing them that quinoa and wheat are both fruits, just like the tomato.
Here are some of the fruits popularly considered "ancient grains"
- Amaranth: domesticated about 8000 years ago by the Aztecs.
- Farro (also known as emmer): an ancestor of modern wheat, domesticated in the Fertile Crescent also about 8000 years ago. The name Farro applies to a version grown in Italy.
- Freekeh: green wheat that's been roasted. It's often lumped in with ancient grains in lists like these, but it's really the same species as modern wheat.
- Kamut: a trademarked variety of khorasan wheat, a relative of modern wheat.
- Millet: domesticated in China, now also commonly grown in India and several African countries including Nigeria.
- Quinoa: first grown at least 3000 years ago in South America, now so popular in the US that it's causing major economic changes for Bolivian growers (some good, some bad).
- Spelt: another wheat relative from the Fertile Crescent, this one grown in Europe through medieval times.
- Teff: a grass with tiny seeds, domesticated and still grown in Ethiopia, where it is used to make the injera bread that you'll recognise if you've ever been to an Ethiopian restaurant.
Nutritionally, these grains are similar to wheat. In protein content, for example, 100g of uncooked grain ranges from 11g (millet) up to 15g (Kamut). Modern wheat has 13. Quinoa's balance of amino acids makes it a "high quality" protein, but it's a mistake to confuse that with having a lot of protein. Quinoa has more than rice, but about the same amount as wheat.
While each grain has a slightly different nutritional profile -- teff is high in calcium, for example -- none is dramatically better than wheat, they're just different. They're all very similar foods, differing more in price and availability than in any nutritional detail. It seems likely that one of their main marketing advantages is simply that they aren't wheat.
What's Wrong With Wheat?
In some circles, wheat is frowned upon. Mark Sisson argues that modern wheat has less selenium than ancient grains, and that it has more of a supposedly harmful component of gluten. Dr William Davis, author of Wheat Belly, calls modern wheat a "perfect, chronic poison" and places the blame on a gluten component called gliadin.
But those claims don't stand up to scrutiny. You're not likely to have selenium deficiency, which is extremely rare, whether you eat wheat or not. Modern wheat hasn't significantly increased its gluten content, and Dr. Davis's wilder claims (like gliadin triggering opioid receptors) aren't credible.
Avoiding wheat makes sense if you have celiac disease or if you feel like gluten-containing foods don't agree with you. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is controversial, but only in its cause -- maybe it's gluten, maybe it's FODMAPs. The symptoms are real, and it's totally reasonable to avoid wheat if you feel better that way.
Farro, Kamut, and spelt are all close relatives of wheat and they do contain gluten. (The other ancient grains, including quinoa, do not.) If you're avoiding wheat for its gluten content, make sure to avoid those too.
A Rare Case of Pure Health Halo
The people who make and market packaged foods like to remind you of their healthier aspects, in hopes that you'll be blinded by the "health halo" and overlook their less angelic qualities. Marketing of ancient grains is unusual because the health halo is implied without any specific health claims.
Take Cheerios + Ancient Grains. General Mills' announcement of the product was just one sentence in a press release mentioning that "Cheerios is the first to bring ancient grains to the mainstream cereal aisle." Here's how their marketing manager explained the cereal's genesis to the New Yorker:
At General Mills, market research and taste tests conducted by [marketing manager] Cunningham and his colleagues showed that consumers were taken with the concept of ancient grains, and were willing to pay a premium for products containing them. Even though people often couldn't quite define ancient grains, Cunningham said, they associated them with "simplicity" and "health." … Cunningham pointed out that "there isn't some sort of extra claim on the front that says this is healthier than any other cereal in the world," nor has General Mills said as much to the press. He explained that the company simply wanted to capitalise on the ancient-grains trend while also making the cereal taste good -- hence the sugar.
Likewise, Kellogg's describes their Origins line (cereals, granola, and muesli featuring ancient grains) with nothing but emotional buzzwords:
We started Kellogg's Origins™ with a simple mission to create wholesome, fulfilling food that nourishes. Food that provides nutrition that's authentic and flavorful. Deliciously simple, real food.
It's a description that could apply to almost any food. Surely they don't think other products, including the likes of their own Corn Flakes, are fake, flavourless, non-fullfilling, and non-nourishing.
The appeal of ancient grains goes beyond a few cereal companies. According to a trend report on ancient grains from market research group Packaged Facts. Quinoa sales were up 35 per cent as of 2014 ("quinoa fatigue has not set in," they write), but Kamut sales were up 686 per cent. Spelt, freekeh, and amaranth were also showing significant gains. Why? The group lists four reasons:
- faster growing breakfast and snacking opportunities,
- being a good source of plant protein,
- giving the impression of cleaner, shorter, simpler ingredient labels,
- and perhaps most importantly, supporting whole grain and gluten-free claims.
Remove the claims about gluten and protein, since these aren't unique to ancient grains, and the trend is an empty health halo: ancient grains "give the impression" that ingredient labels are shorter, while offering nothing unique in the way of nutrition.
Although ancient grains are nothing special compared to grains like wheat, they can still be nutritious. Ancient grains are typically served with their bran and germ intact, meaning they are whole grains. We already know that whole grains are packed with fibre, vitamins, and minerals, and that makes them definitely worth seeking out on labels. The Whole Grains Council, a US nonprofit consumer advocacy group, endorses ancient grains but notes that plenty of cheaper foods, like oatmeal and whole wheat bread, "offer the same whole grain goodness".