Bakers Journal

Technical Talk: January-Februry 2014

January 31, 2014
By John Michaelides

Find out what specialty grains your bakery could start using to increase sales and the healthy nature of your products

Find out what specialty grains your bakery could start using to increase sales and the healthy nature of your products

Ancient or rare grains have been brought to the foreground in recent years. Today, the market for food products incorporating such grains and seeds is exploding. The global value of this market is now reaching billions of dollars. These grains and seeds can be incorporated into many foods as an ingredient or ground into flours.

Ancient grains normally refer to those seeds (not all are true grains) whose origin and cultivation have been known since ancient times with some dating back many thousands of years ago. There is something mystical about these grains because of the history associated with the lost civilizations that used them as their staple food or revered them as part of their culture and religion.


Beyond the fascination with their history and mysticism, there is a substantial value to these grains from the viewpoint of nutrition, health and functionality. Ancient grains may be richer in nutrients than modern grains, which have been bred for higher crop yields and become easier to process and refine.

The main grains and seeds that constitute the core of the ancient grains are amaranth, kamut, millet, quinoa and spelt. However, others are becoming more known as the markets are globalized and the interest in lesser known seeds and grains is growing. These include sorghum, einkorn, farro, emmer, teff, chia and lupin.

Amaranth, a major crop cultivated by the Aztecs, was believed to contribute mystical powers and strength to the human body. The Aztecs used these seeds in their religious ceremonies. It is one of the most nutritious of all grains with high quality protein. The tiny yellow seeds are high in lysine (the essential amino acid that is low in all other grains). It is also very high in vitamins and minerals, especially calcium. Amaranth is not a true grain, but it can be used in many food products as a whole seed or ground into light brown flour, which has a lightly toasted sesame flavour. Amaranth is not cultivated in Canada, but it is available from specialty milling suppliers.

Kamut is a true grain and relative of durum wheat. It has larger kernels than modern wheat and higher protein, lipids and nutrient content. It has a natural sweetness, and due to the nature of its protein, it makes excellent pasta that exhibits freezing tolerance. Its origin is obscure, but it is thought to have originated in ancient Egypt and grown in various regions of the Middle East.It was brought to North America after the Second World War. Limited quantities are grown in U.S. and Canada that is sold as a specialty grain.

Millet is considered to be the most ancient of all grains. Grown in China more than five thousand years ago, millet was considered to be one of China’s five sacred crops. It was also cultivated in India during the same period. Currently, it’s widely cultivated in Africa, India and China, where it is part of a daily staple. The various millet varieties include pearl millet, finger millet, proso millet, foxtail millet and Japanese millet. The seeds are mild in flavour. It is not a true grain, but the whole seeds and flour can be readily used in many food products. Millet is high in vitamins such as vitamin B and rich in the minerals like phosphorus, calcium and iron. It is cultivated in Canada in limited quantities and it is thought to be a potential major crop in Canada.

Quinoa is not a true grain, and originates from South America and is cultivated in the United States and Canada to a limited extent. It has a high content of oil, which is rich in poly-unsaturated fatty acids. It contains protein high in lysine and is of high nutritional value. These grains contain high amounts of essential nutrients such as calcium. The Incas considered quinoa to be the mother grain, and the kernels holy, because eating them resulted in a long healthy life. Quinoa is an excellent source of phosphorus, vitamin E, several B complex vitamins and iron. This is another crop with high potential for Canada.

Spelt is an ancient cereal grain with a mellow, nutty flavour. Its gluten protein is slightly different from that of common wheat. It requires less mixing for the development of dough and absorbs more water. Spelt is an excellent source of vitamin B2 and a good source of niacin, fibre and zinc. It is cultivated on a small scale in Canada and sold as a specialty grain.

Chia is grown commercially in Mexico and other countries, such as Australia. It was widely cultivated by Aztecs as a staple food similar to maize. The seeds contain a high amount of oil (25-30 per cent), which is rich in omega-3, -6 and -9. Chia seeds are typically small and oval in shape and mottled with brown, grey, black and white. The seeds also contain high amounts of dietary fibre, protein, calcium, phosphorus and manganese. They are similar in nutrient content to other edible seeds like flax and sesame. Chia is approved in the European Union as a novel food and can be used as an ingredient in bread formulations at levels up to five per cent of total formula.

Lupin is another emerging seed with high potential. Although lupin is more familiar to us as an ornamental plant, the seeds are a useful source of flour, especially for the gluten-free market. The lupin belongs to the legume family. The seeds contain high amounts of protein (30-40 per cent, which is similar to soy) and substantial quantities of oil. The most interesting characteristic of these seeds is that they contain no starch. 

Ancient grains are becoming more and more familiar to consumers in the developed countries and the demand for food products containing these grains is increasing. This represents an excellent opportunity for the baking and cereals industry, as well as the gluten-free market. 

Dr. John Michaelides is an independent food industry consultant who owns John Michaelides & Associates. He can be reached via cellphone at 519-743-8956 at Bioenterprise 519-821-2960 or by e-mail at Bioenterprise is a company of experienced professionals that coach and mentor emerging Agri-technology companies from planning to start-up to profitability and beyond.

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