bowl of grains and veggies

Finding New Uses for Ancient Grains

Many grains used in ancient times are making a resurgence among health-conscious consumers. Explore the origin of six popular ancient grains and how they’re being used in modern food and beverage.

A Modern Take on an Ancient Food

While ancient grains were essential to feeding early civilizations, a preference evolved over time for a handful of staple grains—namely wheat, rice, and corn. Unlike these modern crops, which have undergone centuries of selective breeding, ancient grains remain mostly unchanged. Their rediscovery is giving consumers new options in whole grains and seeds  , offering different flavors and textures, as well as visual appeal.

Whether consumers are looking for protein, fiber, or micronutrients, incorporating ancient grains into the diet is an easy way to support a healthier lifestyle. Ancient grains can instantly elevate a product to better-for-you status, with some—like quinoa, flax, and chia—even considered superfoods. Appealing claims include “made with ancient grains,” “made with whole grains,” and, for many ancient grains, “gluten-free.”

Here’s a look at the ways six ancient grains are being used in today’s foods and beverages:

1. Oats

Oats are a staple food thought to have originated in Asia before spreading to Europe. Popular for their use in oatmeal, granola, and granola bars, oats are strongly associated with health due to their heart-healthy beta-glucan fiber. Most recently though, oats have become one of the most in-demand beverage ingredients, making a splash in oat milk, as well as oat-milk ice cream. From 2019 to 2020, global new product launches with oats grew 7%, with nutritional drinks and ready meals leading the way.1 Gluten-free oats, which require segregated processing from wheat, are especially in demand.

bars

2. Quinoa

Native to the Andes region of South America, quinoa is a protein-packed ancient grain known for its nutty flavor, unique texture, and variety of colors that include white, black, and red. Known as a complete protein, quinoa is particularly popular with plant-based eaters mindful of protein quality. Quinoa can be found in prepared meals—especially in grain salads and as a side dish in Latin American cuisine—as well as in breads, crackers, and bars.

3. Flax

Although technically an ancient seed, flax is often considered an ancient grain and has  been around since pre-historic times with evidence of flax cultivation dating to around 3000 B.C. in Babylon. Known as a superfood, flaxseed is packed with fiber, protein, and omega-3s. While bakery products topped global new product launches with flax over the past five years at 35%, flax saw its highest growth in the past year in dairy and dairy alternative applications with growth of 32%—including plant-based spoonable and drinking yogurts, cheeses, and butters. 2 Flaxseed is also popular in snacks such as crackers, chips, and bars. 

4. Chia

Chia is known as the super seed that sustained Mayan and Aztec warriors on the battlefield . Chia was also used extensively by messengers in ancient times, who reportedly ran vast distances non-stop, carrying no food other than chia with them to sustain them on the long journey. Today, chia seeds are popular for their protein, fiber, and omega-3s and are found in everything from tortilla chips to RTD beverages. Popular home uses include smoothies and chia pudding, which utilizes the natural thickening properties of chia. In the last five years, chia has been most commonly seen in health snacking applications such as bars, followed by bakery and breakfast cereals.3 However, recent growth has been in sweet spreads like nut butters (up 60% from last year) and in dairy, especially yogurts (up 12%).4

yogurt with blueberry in cups

5. Farro

Farro originated in the Fertile Crescent and has been nourishing Middle Eastern civilizations for millennia. As an ancient wheat, farro is not gluten-free but is valued for its magnesium, iron, protein, and fiber content. Farro’s popularity in the U.S. has been driven by an interest in the Mediterranean Diet which includes this chewy grain in soups, salads, and side dishes. While most of the global launches with farro are traditional side dishes, 40% of new product launches containing farro were in bakery products in 2020.5 

6. Sorghum

The ancient grain sorghum is making a comeback. Global new product launches that included sorghum grew 17% between 2019 and 2020—the fastest growth among this group of ancient grains.6 Sorghum has its origins in Africa and is considered an important food security crop of the future due to its drought tolerance. While sorghum may be traditionally known in the U.S. for making sorghum syrup, it’s increasingly being used in breakfast cereals, baked goods, and extruded snacks like puffs. Another key application for sorghum is gluten-free beers.

Boosting Product Appeal with Ancient Grains

As consumers continue to learn more about the benefits of ancient grains—from their healthy nutrition profiles to their unique flavors and textures—manufacturers who can find innovative ways to include ancient grains in their products will be poised to meet this growing demand. 

From plant-based proteins to our functional and nutritious flax, chia, quinoa, and oat ingredients, our plant-based solutions portfolio provides high-quality solutions that give your products outstanding nutrition, functionality, and flavor. Get in touch to learn more about how our plant-based solutions can elevate your next product formulation. 

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References

1-6. Mintel. Global New Product Database. February 2021.

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