Ancient grain potential: Looking to the past for future functional foods

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Ancient grains like quinoa and chia are already well known, but what makes them so popular - and will other ancient grains like teff and emmer ever see the same success?
Ancient grains like quinoa and chia are already well known, but what makes them so popular - and will other ancient grains like teff and emmer ever see the same success?

Related tags Wheat

From chia and quinoa, to teff and einkorn, there is a resurgent interest in re-discovering ancient varieties of grains as functional food ingredients. But what are they, and why are we so interested in them?

Interest in ancient grains as a new source of functional food ingredients in soaring on the back of increasing demand for more nutritious whole food ingredients and a burgeoning market for gluten-free products, that Mintel data suggests was worth an estimated €8.2 billion ($8.8bn) globally in 2014.

The trend for ancient grains shows no sign of abating; with quinoa and chia already firml established as household names in many countries. Indeed, Mintel survey data from 2013 found that 44% of respondents had eaten ancient grains in the past three months.

But what are the main ancient grains of potential, and why are consumers and those in the food industry so interested in them? A new review paper written by Richard Coope, and published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine​, looks at the history of grain development, and why modern consumers are re-discovering some of these ancient grains.

In their natural whole grain form cereals, and in particular ancient grains, are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, oils, and protein – and provide more food energy worldwide than any other type of crop.

Ancient insights

In his review Coope offers insights on the history of a variety of ancient grains, adding information on their potential use in modern functional foods. 


Chia, literally means 'oily'. It is an annual herb which originated in Mexico and was cultivated by the Aztecs. According to Coope, this grain provides the richest vegetable source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids among the ancient grains. However, Coope commented that until recently chia was a ‘forgotten food’ of the ancient Aztecs.


“It is now being domesticated for the first time in modern history to supply sufficient quantities for world demand,”​ he said.

Chia is now grown commercially in regions of Central and South America. Together with the omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the seed contains significant concentrations of dietary fibre, protein, calcium, magnesium, iron, and antioxidants, said Coope.

“Preliminary clinical research shows that consuming bread containing chia might reduce some cardiovascular risk factors such as systolic blood pressure, C-reactive protein, von Willebrand factor; yet, chia does not seem to affect lipid levels,”​ he added.


This ancient grain originated in the Andean regions of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, where it was successfully domesticated 3,000 to 4,000 years ago for human consumption.

“The Incas, who held the crop to be sacred, referred to quinoa as chisaya mama or ‘mother of all grains’, and it was the Inca emperor who would traditionally sow the first seeds of the season using ‘golden implements’,”​ explained Coope.


The seeds of quinoa contain the bitter-tasting saponins, meaning that after harvest the commercial grains are processed to remove this coating and are generally cooked the same way as rice. 

The nutrient composition is of quinoa is very good compared with common cereals, and the grain become highly appreciated for its nutritional value, and especially for its high protein content (18%). 

“Unlike wheat or rice (which are low in lysine), and like oats, quinoa contains a balanced set of essential amino acids for humans, making it a complete protein source,”​ said Coope. “It is a good source of dietary fibber and phosphorus and is high in magnesium and iron.” 

Quinoa is also gluten-free and considered easy to digest.

Because of all these characteristics, quinoa is being considered a possible crop in NASA's Controlled Ecological Life Support System for long-duration human occupied spaceflights.


Einkorn literally translates as 'single grain' from German. It is a type of awned wheat and was one of the first crops domesticated in the Near East. Known as farro in Italy, einkorn wheat - along with emmer wheat and barley - was one of the three so-called ‘Neolithic founder crops’ in the development of agriculture and was first domesticated approximately 7500 BC.


Indeed, grains of wild einkorn have been found in Epi-Paleolithic sites of the Fertile Crescent.

“Einkorn is a diploid species of hulled wheat, with tough glumes (‘husks’) that tightly enclose the grains,”​ explained Coope. “The cultivated form is similar to the wild, except that the ear stays intact when ripe and the seeds are larger.”

“Today it is a relict crop that is rarely planted, though it has found a new market as a health food,”​ he added – noting that it often survives on poor soils where other species of wheat fail.


Also, rather confusingly, known as farro in Italy, emmer wheat is also a type of awned wheat. It was widely cultivated in the ancient world but is now a relict crop found only in mountainous regions of Europe and Asia.


According to Coope, emmer's main use is as a human food and evidence from Turkey and other emmer-growing areas suggests that the ancient wheat variety makes good bread.

“Today, emmer bread is available in Switzerland and in Italy, emmer bread (pane di farro) can be found in bakeries in some areas,”​ said Coope.

Because it is higher in fibre than common wheat, emmer's main use is for making pasta, however the grain has also been used in beer production.

“As with most varieties of wheat, however, emmer is probably unsuitable for sufferers from wheat allergies or celiac disease,”​ noted Coope.



Teff is the main ingredient in an Ethiopian fermented flatbread known as Injera – yet is scarcely known elsewhere, according to Coope. The grain is high in fibre and protein, and can also be eaten as a warm breakfast cereal that is “similar to farina with a chocolate or nutty flavour,”​ said Coope.

“Its flour and whole grain products can usually be found in natural foods stores,” h​e added. 

Note: This article is based on a review by Raymond Coope, and only focuses on a selection of ancient grains. It does not cover the whole range of ancient grains as this would be nearly impossible. Other ancient grains including amaranth, sorghum, millet and spelt, were explored in a recent article featured on sister site FoodNavigator-USA​.

Source: Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.jtcme.2015.02.004
“Re-discovering ancient wheat varieties as functional foods”
Author: Raymond Coope

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