Why Ancient Wheat Might Be the Newest Trendy Grain

Last Update: September 28, 2022

Move over Triticum aestivum—einkorn and emmer want their moment in the limelight. After all, typical bread wheat has hogged the scene for too many millennia.

Triticum aestivum is a subspecies of bread wheat that emerged more than 10,000 years ago in modern-day Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. Today, it’s the kind of wheat that most farmers grow, despite the existence of numerous others that predate humans.

And according to plant scientists Friedrich Longin and Tobias Würschum, it’s time for us to diversify. In a researched opinion piece for Trends in Plant Science, Longin and Würschum say reintroducing ancient varieties of wheat could both bolster the food supply and meet the growing demand for artisanal, natural products.

“People are interested in healthy things that are not modified, that are non-GMO,” Longin told NPR.

Just take quinoa and millet, for example—both gluten-free grains have become wildly popular in the last few years.  Spelt has also seen a resurgence, especially in Europe, though the same hasn’t happened yet with other varieties wheat.

And it’s not just to satisfy our desire for new, interesting food—researchers say bringing back forgotten crops is crucial to biodiversity. Out of the 30,000 edible species of plants, only 30 feed the world. Furthermore, 60 percent of the global energy intake is dominated by five cereals: rice, bread wheat, maize, millets, and sorghum.

“This extreme focus on few species and accessions has led to a large loss of biodiversity with negative consequences such as the extinction of species, vulnerability of ecosystems, and difficulties to meet future agricultural demands, because genetic variability to provide climatic and pest adaptation is lost,” write Würschum and Longin. “Furthermore, traditional dishes, recipes, and customs in food preparation have disappeared, resulting in a strong decrease in food diversity.”

Reintroducing these ancient wheats could also have some health benefits.  Plant geneticist Mark Sorrells told NPR that both einkorn and emmer have less gluten than traditional wheat, making them a good choice for people with slight gluten sensitivities. Both varieties also contain carotenoids (antioxidants particularly good for eyesight), and einkorn is rich in vitamin E and other compounds that can help lower cholesterol.

Now to the tricky part: how to actually make it happen. The researchers say it will require the collaboration of the entire food chain: demand from consumers, research and development from plant scientists, education and equipment for small farmers and millers, and special product placement for bakers.

So going way back in time for different wheat can build environmental, economic, and food security, plus offer some health benefits? Pass the einkorn bread, please.

Photo credit: Dominik Martin via Unsplash

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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