Ancient Grains: A Culture Not a Fad

bowls of ancient grain flour

As food fads come and go, there is mounting evidence that ancient grains are here to stay. In recent years, there has been an increasing demand for ancient grains like KAMUT® wheat, spelt, faro, emmer, einkorn and pseudo ancient grains (not from the grass family) such as quinoa due to their nutrition and health benefits. Unlike modern grains, ancient grains have survived intact for centuries and have more vitamins, minerals, fiber and proteins than modern grains, as well as a distinctive and more flavorful taste.

What I have come to realize is that the main driver in our food system in the U.S. has very little to do with nutrition and more to do with fads and trends. Trends can often stem from a food sensitivity such as the Gluten-Free phenomenon. People who suffer from celiac disease (about 1% of the population) should absolutely avoid wheat and products containing gluten, but for most people with non-celiac wheat sensitivities (up to 20% of the population) this is not true. Fueled by celebrities who decided this was a way to lose weight, and books like “Wheat Belly”, the Gluten-Free fad is now a major business. Estimated by Mintel at $10.5bn in 2013, second only to the Fat-Free and Sugar-Free trends of the seventies and eighties.

The problem is, things are never as simple as they seem. Fat-free seemed like a very simple and compelling concept—people were getting fatter, so cutting out fats should solve the problem, right? Wrong! We all need good fats to be healthy and when we eliminate fat from foods, manufacturers had to compensate by adding more sugar to make products taste good—basically swapping one problem for another.

The same goes for wheat. Wheat is something I know a lot about, not only do I grow it, but I have studied it and over the past 10 years have been very involved in clinical research to try and find an answer to the gluten issue. More specifically, I have been looking to answer the question: “Why can people with non-celiac wheat sensitivities eat KAMUT® wheat with little or no difficulties?” But nothing is ever that simple. What we are finding in all the research is that maybe gluten isn’t the problem, but maybe modern wheat is. Modern wheat has been hybridized over the years, which typically sacrifices taste and nutritional value for higher yields and higher rising loaves of bread. Not only that, it seems that our digestive systems cannot tolerate modern wheat in the same way as ancient varieties. For example, in double blind studies KAMUT® wheat is not only well tolerated, it also exhibits protective and healthy benefits.

One of the first  human studies of chronic disease with KAMUT® wheat was on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), comparing KAMUT® brand wheat to modern durum wheat. The study, published by the British Journal of Nutrition, showed that those with moderate IBS had significantly reduced symptoms while consuming KAMUT® wheat compared to modern wheat. Another study published in the January 2013 issue of European Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that, when compared to modern wheat, KAMUT® khorasan wheat shows that even healthy human subjects benefited by being protected against oxidative stress and inflammation.

People are starting to understand the health benefits of ancient grains. In Italy, where we undertake most of the research, my colleagues and myself are working to gain more understanding about how ancient and modern wheat affect our health. Like I said, there’s no easy answer. Each time we discover something, it opens up even more questions. But that’s what makes it exciting. To think simple foods like ancient grains could unlock the key to the health of mankind is pretty amazing.

For now, I would just like you to think about ancient grains as a culture… they have been around for centuries, they are not just a trend or a fad, they are an essential part of a healthy and nutritious diet. But for those of you who like to follow trends, here’s something for you too.

In a trend article I came across, they are saying that due to their rise in popularity and demand, ancient grains are more mainstream and accessible than ever before and according to a recent survey conducted by Today’s Dietitian and Pollock Communications, ancient grains will continue to grow in 2015 and will be a top nutritional trend.