Wheat has long been a staple in American diets, but as the nation's population becomes more diverse so is its palate. Einkorn, emmer, and spelt aren't common on mainstream food labels, but these ancestors of modern wheat continue to be popular among ethnic groups and have the potential to become lucrative agricultural crops.
Frank Kutka, co-coordinator of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society's Farm Breeding Club in Dickinson, N.D., says that einkorn, emmer, and spelt each provide an opportunity to benefit producers, not only through enterprise diversification but also the forecasted growth in demand for the grains. Ethnic markets are only predicted to expand, and there is also a growing segment of health-conscious consumers seeking these grains for their higher nutrient density and higher-end consumers who appreciate these grains' use in artisan food products.
"Emmer bread is delicious," said Julie Dawson, research associate at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where she is leading a project on the feasibility of growing these ancient grains as an agricultural crop in the United States. "It's used a lot in Italian cuisine, and the breads are more dense than wheat."
Dawson adds that some consumers enjoy a certain romanticism as well for foods out of the ordinary or that are tied to history somehow. Einkorn, emmer, and spelt definitely have that quality.
"Wheat has a very large and very complicated genealogy," Dawson said. Modern wheat traces its roots back to emmer some 17,000 years ago. Einkorn, a cousin to modern wheat but not in direct lineage, was the first species of wheat to grow on the planet. And spelt was developed by breeding emmer and its next-generation species, durum, probably 7,000 years ago. When crossed with a wild species, that durum eventually became bread wheat, otherwise what is now known as modern wheat.
Einkorn, emmer, and spelt are not well known in the United States, Dawson says. Spelt can sometimes be found on food labels, but einkorn and emmer are almost non-existent outside of specialty health food stores and ethnic food markets, Dawson says, although the online community - bloggers and social media users - is alive with discussions about these ancient grains.
"These ancient grains are significantly better known in Europe," Dawson said. "Regions in Switzerland, France, Italy, and the U.K. are growing emmer and einkorn. Spelt has been grown in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean continuously for millennia."
On the Table
Einkorn and emmer are both known for adding flavor to foods, and both as well as spelt are exceptional in nutrition compared to modern wheat, Kutka says. In fact, emmer is often used in foods for populations suffering from famine, such as Ethiopian and Indian families. Emmer is also helpful for diabetics who otherwise would have to avoid bread products. Specifically, einkorn has more protein, fat, lutein, vitamin E, and all minerals except for cadmium than modern wheat. Emmer has more protein, fiber, minerals, and antioxidants than modern wheat. Spelt has more fat, protein, iron, zinc, magnesium, and phosphorus than modern wheat.
"This variation of nutritional qualities is common through the wheats," Kutka said.
In addition, while all three grains have the same allergenic properties as modern wheat, their gluten amounts are lower than modern wheat, Dawson adds. While spelt can be used in baking, emmer and einkorn both have too low of a gluten amount for baking leaven bread; einkorn is good for flat breads, while emmer is better for non-bread food processing.
"They are not gluten free, but many people with gluten sensitivities are able to eat these without trouble," Dawson said.
Because of all of these qualities, she sees great potential for einkorn, emmer, and spelt.
"Spelt has been sought out as a healthy alternative to white bread for many years," Dawson said. "Other ancient grains are gaining market hold, as well, such as quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, teff, millet, sorghum, and kamut. Consumers are looking for nutritional value first of all, flavor is a big drive, and that their dollar value matches the value that they believe these products have. Consumers will pay more for items they believe have higher value."
In the Field
Furthermore, researchers are beginning to investigate whether these ancient grains might be able to lend a few genes to modern wheat to improve production. Emmer, in particular, is known for being naturally drought, disease, pest, and soil salinity resistant, Kutka explains.
Steve Zwinger, agronomy research specialist at the North Dakota State University's Carrington Research Extension Center in Carrington, N.D., with a special interest in emmer, says his research is centering on what genetics both ancient grains and heritage wheats - the varieties dating back to just the past 150 years, mostly those pre-1950s - can offer to modern wheat.
"Especially with einkorn, there have been very little breeding efforts," he said. While ancient grains offer potential, seed is very limited, mostly to farmer-saved sources or the National Small Grains Collection.
Zwinger began his trials with 224 varieties of ancient grains, heritage wheat, and modern wheat and is now comparing more than 500 varieties each year. All grain is seeded in the hull at 100 pounds per acre, which equates about 1 million plants per acre. He's looking for production qualities, such as yield, maturity, vigor, height, lodging, drought and pest resistance, nitrogen fertilizer management, planting date, and planting rate, as well as qualities for the grain's end use, such as hulling, test weight, nutritional content, and baking ability. So far, the ancient grains look promising.
"Yields in ancient grains are very similar to modern wheats, better in drought or stress situations, but will lodge easily under high fertility," Zwinger said. "Many of these don't get diseases or insect problems or even have trouble with weeds."