Ancient and heirloom grains are cropping up everywhere these days, but they are up against giants like conventional wheat. Will these specialty grains ever make it to the mainstream?
If you’ve walked down the gluten-free aisle of the grocery store or checked out the grain assortment in the bulk foods section, you’ve probably seen the names of several grains that seemed exotic or unfamiliar. Products like triticale, einkorn, millet, and amaranth used to be available only from specialty grocers, but they are slowly cropping up in supermarkets all over America. Thanks in part to the rising demand for gluten-free products and to healthier products in general, Americans now have access to a huge selection of whole grains and flours made from ancient and heirloom grain varieties, nuts, seeds, and even beans like chickpeas and split peas. These specialty products bring a new diversity of flavors, textures, and colors to the kitchen, and many are promoted by the Whole Grains Council as being highly nutritious or even better for the environment than conventional grains. With so much to offer, why are these specialty grains still relegated to niche markets rather than being mainstream? In other words, why are they still “special”?
Transitioning a specialty product to a mainstream product requires input from many different stakeholders. In the case of specialty grains, farmers, food producers, and consumers alike are involved. To learn more about this process, I interviewed Patrick Hart, a Specialty Grain Merchant at Ardent Mills. Hart recognizes three main challenges for getting more specialty grains into the market.
Challenge 1: Farmers must be convinced that the switch to alternative grains is worth the effort from both a financial and a procedural standpoint.
While conventional or even specially treated wheat seeds might range in cost from 5 to 40 cents a pound (see AgPro or Indigo Ag), heritage wheat seeds go for about $3.00 an ounce (see Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds) or as much as $7.99 for just 25 seeds if the heirloom variety is especially rare (see Sustainable Wheat Company). With 74 to 119 pounds of seed per acre, the difference between conventional or heritage seeds could cost farmers thousands of dollars across their whole operation. On top of that, the growing seasons, techniques, and yield for specialty grains can also differ from their conventional counterparts leading to a potentially expensive learning curve.
Challenge 2: Consumers must be convinced to try specialty grains and specialty grain products.
According to Hart, 10-15% of customers will always be willing to try new things. Another 30-40% may be early adopters, but the crucial tipping point is that next 30-40% of consumers who need to get on board for the product to go mainstream. These new grains must taste good, be nutritionally beneficial, be reasonably priced, and function like more familiar grain products. While taste and nutrition aren’t a problem for most specialty grains, price and functionality can be a challenge. Due to costs involved in growing and producing these grains, and due to the lower supply, their prices tend to be much higher than conventional grain products. In terms of functionality, many of these grains don’t contain gluten which is a key structural component for baked goods made from traditional flours like wheat, barley, and rye. While many bakers are now learning how to work with specialty grains, functionality is a must.
Challenge 3: The supply chain must be stable for both supply and price.
This third challenge is possibly the most crucial for getting specialty grains on the shelves. If farmers want to convert large plots of land to organic or other alternative grains, can the market withstand the influx of supply? On the other hand, when supplies are low, can consumer demand withstand fluctuations in price? “Look at quinoa prices over last 10 years,” Hart said. “Quinoa became really popular, and a lot of people were working with it. Then in 2014, prices on quinoa sky-rocketed which turned off a lot of people from innovating with quinoa because the prices got so out of whack.”
While farmers of commodity crops like conventional wheat, corn, rice, and soy benefit from large markets and fairly stable demand for these products worldwide, farmers who want to grow heirloom varieties of these same common grains have no such benefits. The market for heirloom wheat varieties like farro, Kamut®, and spelt, for example, simply isn’t big enough yet for most farmers to find value in switching from conventional wheat. For those farmers that do decide to switch, they are very aware of the risks involved.
Ardent Mills is also aware of these risks but believes that having more acres dedicated to organic wheat is a worthy goal. In the three years it takes to transition a plot from conventional to organic, according to USDA regulations, crop yield and quality can vary. During this time, farmers are making large financial investments but have no real market for their transitional crops. In an effort to support farmers who are transitioning to organic crops, Ardent Mills provides subsidies and educational resources to farmers. Perhaps most importantly, they also provide a market for these farmers by selling the transitional wheat which is farmed organically but is not yet able to claim organic certification.
To respond to the rising demand for organic products and sustainable farming practices, many organic growers are also trying to incorporate ancient grains into their holistic crop rotation practices. This is done primarily to improve soil quality by naturally fixing nitrogen back into the ground or by mitigating weed pressure and pests. Some of the best crops for this type of rotation include dry peas, chickpeas, sorghum, and millet – all of which can end up on the shelves as specialty flours.
For now, sales for spelt, quinoa, and pulses (like chickpea flour) are doing pretty well at Ardent Mills, but Hart says it’s still early in the game for a lot of their specialty grains. Their unique flavors and textures can provide a nice contrast to more typical options, and their nutritious and earth-friendly qualities can make you feel good about consuming them. But until these wonderful grains hit the mainstream, they are bound to have a higher price tag. If you’ve considered adding more specialty grains to your routine but aren’t sure where to start, first try diversifying your diet with a variety of traditional whole grains like oats, brown rice, or bulgur wheat. You can always experiment with specialty grains until you find the ones you really love and that are worth the price for you. And just think, as you contribute to the steadily rising demand for specialty grains, someday you’ll be able to have your cake made from ancient grains and afford to eat it too.
Tip for success: If you are ready to experiment with specialty flours, find several recipes using the same type of flour so you can maximize your purchase. For instance, with a one pound bag of chickpea flour, you can try out all these recipes and more: sweet chickpea flour chocolate chip cookies, savory chickpea flour pancakes with leeks, squash, and yogurt, crispy chickpea flour crackers, and spicy chickpea flour “omelette” with chipotle-grilled tomato.
Kelly Cara is a first-year graduate student in the Friedman School Nutrition Data Science program. Her research is focused on health outcomes related to various levels of food processing found in specific dietary patterns. She comes to Tufts after working for eight years in the field of experimental psychology and higher education research and four years in the culinary field as a health supportive chef and instructor.