Over the last few years, the baby boomer generation has witnessed a resurgence of trends in some consumer goods categories. Boomers reacted with surprise and disbelief when clothing styles from the 1970s recently returned to the runways. And, mid-century modern furniture, completely commonplace in the 1950s and 1960s, is again all the rage with millennials. These examples bring to mind the phrase, “What’s old is new again”.
While cyclical trends are far less common in the food industry due to technological advancements, food safety legislation, environmental regulations, and increasing focus on healthy eating, one such food category that is experiencing cycling is the grain category, and specifically, “ancient grains”.
What’s causing cycling in the grain category?
Grains have long been a big part of the American diet due to their nutritional and health benefits, affordable price point, and versatility of consumption as a stand-alone product or as an ingredient in more complex products or recipes. Through technological advances in agriculture, grains, like many other crops, have been bred to resist disease, pests, and drought.
At present, consumers, opposed to the technological breeding of crops, are driving growth in demand for foods that are organic, gluten free, non-GMO, or identity preserved. This, in turn, is causing some food manufacturers to move toward more specialization and differentiation in consumer offerings in effort to capitalize on identified consumer niches, and with recognition that specialized products can command price premiums. These food manufacturers partner with growers and marketers to deliver food products that consumers believe to be more nutritious and/or more environmentally friendly.
Ancient grains started out as niche products, but are now becoming more mainstream, and can be more readily found in typical grocery stores.
What are ancient grains?
By basic definition, all whole grains can be considered ancient because they have been around from the beginning of civilization. However, the more precise definition of ancient grains is those that have largely been unchanged over the last several hundred years. So, modern wheat, constantly bred and changed, is not an ancient grain. However, bulgur, einkorn, emmer/farro, spelt, and khorasan, all part of the wheat family, are considered ancient grains. Other ancient grains include sorghum, teﬀ, millet, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and wild rice. Also, rare varieties of other common grains, such as black barley, red and black rice, and blue corn might also be considered ancient grains.
Ancient grains are widely considered to be more nutritious than standard commodity grains that have been bred for higher yields. Based on Nielsen data, and depicted below, retail sales of ancient grains are currently dominated by quinoa and wild rice, together representing 87% of Nielsen’s specialty grains and wild rice categories. Barley, farro, and bulgar account for most of the remaining 13%. While combined sales volume for these referenced specialty grains is down about 2% so far in 2019, growth of 2.0-2.5% occurred in each of the past three years, and prices also declined, perhaps due to increasing supplies1.
Given that two ancient grains have captured the majority of the market share across ancient grains, these two deserve greater focus.
Quinoa, pronounced “KEEN-wah”, is in the Goosefoot family, which also includes sugar beets, Swiss chard, spinach, and many species of weeds. Quinoa is native to the Andean region of South America, with Peru and Bolivia leading world production, but is now grown in more than 50 countries. Quinoa production in the U.S. began in the 1980s in the Colorado Rockies, and has emerged in the northern U.S. and also southern Canada more recently.3 But, further expansion to other U.S. regions has been limited by climate since plants require soil temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit and plenty of sunlight. Air temperatures above 90 degrees are detrimental to pollination.
Quinoa’s attributes of being high in protein, moderate in carbohydrates, and gluten-free are large reasons for its popularity, but quinoa also lends itself nicely to combination with other ingredients for palette-pleasing recipes. Ardent Mills’ proprietary research from Nielsen Scantrack, XAOC shows a 72% average annual growth rate in the number of products containing quinoa from 2012 to 2016.2 What’s more, the price of quinoa also increased dramatically, nearly tripling between 2006 and 2013, due to high demand in the United States and Europe.3 While prices began to drop in 2015 indicating a better balance of supply and demand, there remains a strong market for quinoa today.3
Wild rice is technically not rice, but rather a collection of various aquatic grass seeds that are harvested and cooked like rice. It originated with the harvesting of “wild” rice in the lakes of Minnesota by aboriginal inhabitants. Introduction of seed to California’s rice country in the early 1970s, and further development of growing techniques, including seed cold storage to induce dormancy and the planting in rice paddies, stimulated production in northern California.
Today, the vast majority of the world’s supply of wild rice is grown in the U.S. and Canada, with California and Minnesota dominating the U.S. production.4 Larger and more stable supplies of wild rice have enhanced processing and marketing, and have even resulted in blends of wild and white rice. In the U.S., wild rice is widely served as a side dish in high-end restaurants, and worldwide is used an ingredient in prepared foods such as soups and stuffing, or is packaged stand-alone as a consumer product. Retail sales volume of wild rice increased by an average of 2% per year from 2015 to 2018. Pricing during this time declined slightly.1
Ancient grains – fad or here to stay?
As is the case with most consumer products, consumer traction is dependent upon the appeal of the product. If it tastes good, and is marketed well, consumers will buy and eat it. If it tastes good, and also has added health benefits, consumers will buy it, eat it, and might be willing to pay a premium price for it. With this logic in mind, below are several more ancient grains that hold promise as consumers look for healthy alternatives to heavily-bred grain crops.
- Barley and oats contain higher levels of soluble fiber.
- Buckwheat contains rutin, a unique antioxidant that supports cardiovascular health.
- Teff, a grain from Africa, is high in iron and calcium, and can be grown in arid climates with little moisture.
- Amaranth, quinoa, millet, and sorghum do not contain gluten, and are more tolerable for those who have difficulty digesting gluten. These grains can be used to make cookies, snacks, and breads, and enable an array of flavors and textures beyond typical gluten-free products.
- Kernza, a wild relative of wheat, is also gluten free. Several universities foresee this grain as having an impact on the future of agriculture since it doesn’t require annual re-planting. General Mills is currently selling Honey Toasted Kernza cereal through its Cascadian subsidiary.5
What does the future hold for ancient grains?
Consumers are driving the agricultural industry toward more sustainable farming practices. Since ancient grains can be grown with low levels of pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation, they have become a viable and desirable solution.
Future growth in consumption of quinoa, wild rice, and numerous other ancient grains likely will depend on what percentage of the population remains interested and committed to grains produced without agricultural technology, flexibility and appeal of these grains as food ingredients, and willingness of consumers to pay a premium to ensure scale of production and availability of the grains.
- Food Business News, Ancient grains finding future foothold in North America
- USDA Agricultural Marketing Ressourc Center, Quinoa
- USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service
- Dallas Morning News, Can cereal save the planet?