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Nothing Says 'Hip' Like Ancient Wheat

An illustration shows spikes of different types of wheat: (1) Polish wheat (2) Club wheat (3) Common bread wheat (4) Poulard wheat (5) Durum wheat (6) Spelt (7) Emmer (8) Einkorn.

Forget bold stripes and mule flats — could the next big fad be super-old wheat?

Consumer interest in healthy grains could sow the seeds for some long-forgotten bread wheats to make a comeback, according to an opinion article released Monday in Trends in Plant Science — presumably the Vogue of botany.

"People are interested in healthy things that are not modified, that are non-GMO," says Friedrich Longin, a plant breeder at the University of Hohenheim, Germany, who wrote the opinion article with his colleague Tobias Würschum. Increased wheat diversity could bolster food security, the authors argue, while satisfying consumer demand. This is particularly true, Longin says, in the U.S. and Europe, where most diners have enough food and enjoy the luxury of seeking novelty in their dishes.

Some ancient grains, like quinoa and millet, have already gone mainstream, but the authors argue that the time is ripe for more diversity when we reach for bread loaves at the grocery store.

Today, most farmers grow only one subspecies of bread wheat — Triticum aestivum — the ancestor of which emerged more than 10,000 years ago in the area that now contains Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, according to Dipak Santra, an agronomist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who was not involved in writing the opinion article. But humans likely ate other species of wheat much earlier. A species called "einkorn" arose well before humans, 5 million to 7 million years ago, and another species related to pasta wheat, called "emmer," originated around 400,000 years ago, also in the Fertile Crescent, Santra says. While some foodies have embraced these grains in their diet, and emmer cultivation is relatively common in India, the ancient wheats are hardly kitchen staples in the U.S. and Europe, and they're uncommon sources of bread.

So how did today's bread wheat come to dominate the world of grain? Unlike ancient wheats, modern bread wheat has no hull casing around its grains, making it easier to process into flour. What's more, the "Green Revolution" of the mid-20th century made this wheat variety shorter and stiffer, the better to prevent falling over and fungal infection. As a result, modern bread wheat yields three times more wheat per acre than older species, Santra says.

Ancient varieties probably won't replace mainstream bread wheat in feeding the almost 10 billion people on Earth by 2050. But old grains have some advantages as supplementary wheats — like distinct flavor, according to the opinion authors. Longin tells The Salt that einkorn has a nutty sweetness gourmets are sure to love. And einkhorn and emmer are particularly high in eyesight-friendly carotenoids.

Some species could also have advantages for people with gluten sensitivities, according to Mark Sorrells, a plant geneticist at Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Emmer has less of the protein gluten than mainstream bread wheat, and einkorn has even less gluten than emmer, he says.

"I think there is a growing interest in eating nutritious and healthy food, even if it costs a little more," Sorrells says.

The authors say that wheat diversity could increase the chances of wheat resilience in the face of future climate changes and pest challenges. And Santra adds that wheat diversity could help humans cultivate new areas. "If we need to feed 9 billion, we need to produce some grain in marginal land," he says, noting some types of "ancient grain can grow in hostile environments."

But cost is one of the greatest challenges to reintroducing ancient wheat varieties. All the agronomists contacted for this piece said old wheats, with their inconvenient hulls and relatively low research funding, are unlikely to match mainstream breads' appealingly low price, even in future years. To get consumers to pay a premium, growers must educate them about why ancient wheat costs more, says Longin. And farmers must identify the right strains that will thrive on their land, while millers and bakers learn how best to process and bake the new grains. This means altering baking recipes; Longin, who bakes with einkorn, advises skipping intensive kneading.

Longin points to spelt, a relative of wheat, as a promising example of crop reintroduction. Spelt was popular in Germany until the turn of the 20th century, when it literally lost ground to modern bread wheat. But it re-emerged in the 1970s with the organic movement, when a few bakers and millers refamiliarized themselves with spelt. Today, there's a 1 billion-euro annual spelt market in Germany and the surrounding area, growing by 5 percent each year.

Spelt products have also gained ground in the U.S. Hain Celestial, the parent company of brands like Rudi's and Arrowhead Mills, introduced spelt flour in the 1990s and a spelt tortilla in 2007. "In the '90s, it was certainly more niche," says senior director of marketing Jared Simon. "It was really limited to Whole Foods and natural food stores." But now, he says, spelt products can be found in nonspecialty grocery stores, and Hain Celestial is planning to expand into other old grains.

"I think there's a definite shift," says Beth George, the founder of Spelt Right, which sells spelt bread products in the New York City area for $6 to $6.50 per loaf. George says even companies like Panera are championing old grains.

A thumbs-up from organic foodies and national chains? Vintage bread must be on the rise.

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