Bakers Journal

Final proof: Heirloom grains and seeds

May 17, 2021
By Jane Dummer

What’s old is new again: finding opportunities for ancient grains and heirloom seeds

Seeds like tricolour quinoa are seeing more demand, particularly for those looking for unique applications to familiar recipes. Photo credit: Ardent Mills.

When the universe hands us uncertainty, we crave comfort and the familiar. Nostalgia is all about providing positive emotional reactions. In crisis, people may attach their emotions to another time or place where things were perceived as easier and happier. Hence, the interest in heirloom grains and seeds as we transition out of a global pandemic. 

In the baking industry, we have heard the terms heirloom, heritage and ancient grains and seeds. Currently, none of these terms have formal, scientific recognized definitions. However, when we reach for nostalgic baking, they all seem to fit. Angela Ichwan, senior director technical lead, The Annex by Ardent Mills explains, “The terms are often used interchangeably by marketers and consumers to describe minor cereal grains (i.e., Khorasan wheat, einkorn, spelt, emmer, sorghum) and pseudo cereal grains (i.e., quinoa, amaranth, millet). Though typically not part of consumers’ staple diets, where modern varieties of wheat, rice and corn are prevalent, ancient and heirloom grains are rising in consumption and popularity. Historically they were consumed locally where they were originally grown and have gained popularity among the local food movements due to perceived improved nutritional and flavour profiles, and/or an emotional connection to the past.”

Canada is known for the heirloom (or heritage) wheat variety Red Fife. It is Canada’s oldest wheat and traces back to 1842. As the story goes, the seed was shipped from Europe to Peterborough, Ontario farmer David Fife. By the 1860s, Red Fife was distributed and grown across Canada. Red Fife was gradually replaced by varieties of wheat resistant to diseases and pests. It still exists today in smaller quantities and is typically prepared as a stone-milled whole wheat for baking, which means it retains parts of the wheat where much of the fibre, protein, B-vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals are found.

Ichwan adds, “The agronomic performance of these heirloom type grains are not as optimal as modern varieties, which impacts yield per acre and sustainability value for the land used to grow them. As consumers are demanding more diversity in their diets, farmers and other agricultural stakeholders are working together to increase the accessibility and sustainability of these grains and seeds.” 

Bruce Stewart, co-owner, True Grain Bread in British Columbia, describes, “We do not use the term heirloom. We refer to ancient grains or heritage grains. For ancient grains, we describe them as natural varieties that are distinct, such as einkorn, emmer, Khorasan, and spelt. For heritage varieties, these are more modern varieties, but old enough to predate human’s hybridization efforts, including Red Fife and Marquis. Home baking enjoyed a spike at the beginning of the pandemic. And consequently, people have more time to reconnect with their food. They are interested in the unique flavours that these grains deliver, particularly when fermented in sourdough.” 

Overall, the industry has experienced an increase in interest and demand for heirloom grains and seeds since the start of the pandemic.  Jennifer Tesch, chief marketing officer, Healthy Food Ingredients, explains, “We have seen continued demand for amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa and a resurgence in interest in sorghum, flax, and millet specifically. With more people eating and cooking at home, consumers are leading manufacturers to look for unique ways to utilize heirloom type grains.  We see demand for blends in whole grain form and further processed into a multi-grain flour blend, for example, to maximize inclusion. Heirloom and ancient grains play into a whole grain, gluten-free trend while encompassing a clean and simple label. Through, we are supporting smaller bakers and manufacturers to utilize heirloom and ancient grains and seeds including quinoa, flax and chia for just-in-time product.”

Don Trouba, senior director, go-to market, The Annex by Ardent Mills, concludes, “Heirloom grains are great way to offer new flavour, colour, texture and marketing opportunities, and provide fresh and exciting experiences for bakers and consumers. Heirloom grains, in combination with other whole grains or separately, bring variety to someone looking to add protein, fibre, antioxidants, and trace vitamins to their diets. Depending on the grain, they play into plant-forward trends; and can contribute a healthful halo. Heirloom grains can also be an opportunity to add an authenticity, sustainability, or transparency story to baked goods.”

Jane Dummer, RD, known as the Pod to Plate Food Consultant, collaborates and partners with the food and nutrition industry across North America. 

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