Interest in ancient grains has increased around the world, says Lynn Dornblaser, of Mintel International. For example, global new product launches containing spelt grew from a little less than 150 in 2004 to about 350 in 2007; new quinoa products grew from just over 50 introductions to over 200 in the same period.

What exactly are ancient grains, and how can food manufacturers incorporate them into new products that entice consumers? Mark Furstenberg, consulting chef for ConAgra Mills, a supplier of these ingredients, addressed these questions at the 2008 RCA Annual Conference.

Ancient grains were staples of early societies, says chef Furstenberg. Through the centuries, they were “nudged out” by the introduction of wheat and corn — grains that can be easier to use and digest and that provide important characteristics for finished products. For example, the gluten in wheat produces relatively light, moist breads. Sometimes, immigration patterns and cultural revolutions ended a grain’s use. The Aztecs and the conquering Spaniards considered amaranth a super-grain: so much so, in fact, the Spaniards prohibited its cultivation, fearing amaranth would increase the strength of their captives.

Ancient grains are making a comeback for a variety of reasons. They are generally nutrient-rich and high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. They can also add appealing tastes and textures. Additionally, many are gluten-free and, thus, can be used in alternative products for gluten-sensitive individuals.

Furstenberg went on to suggest applications in which specific grains could cleverly be used. Amaranth can be cooked up like cereals for breakfast items, toasted or added to soups. It also lends itself well to flatbreads. Buckwheat is beneficial to pancakes, soups, stuffings for poultry or vegetables, and can be a good stand-in for rice or pasta.

ConAgra offers the following formula for a rotini nine-grain pasta that also uses the company’s Ultragrain® whole-wheat flour:

  • 47.5% semolina.
  • 36% Ultragrain whole-wheat flour.
  • 1.5% egg white.
  • 15% nine-grain blend (Sustagrain barley, rye, wheat, oat, amaranth, quinoa, millet, sorghum and teff).
  • Millet also does well in cooked cereals, casseroles, baked goods, breads, soups, side dishes, pilafs and stuffings. Quinoa adds a desirable flavor and texture to cold salads, side dishes such as pilaf, breakfast cereals and puddings. Sorghum, in flour form, is a good basis for pancakes or flatbreads. Lastly, teff can be used as flour in baked goods or as a grain in place of seeds, nuts or other small grains.

  • As a restaurateur, chef Furstenberg recognized that the grains’ health attributes would not draw everyone and noted that in some situations, a grain should be incorporated in subtle ways. He suggests care to not “over-use” the whole-grain message, when a whole-grain positioning applies.

  • Some rules of thumb for creative approaches to ancient grains’ use include substituting flours and pastas made from ancient grains for refined wheat products, such as the ancient grain orzo. The substantive nature of the ingredients means they are good basics for vegetarian and wheat-free menu items or of main course salads, soups, side dishes and breakfast foods. Look to whole grains as a way to add texture to cereal-based products and vibrant flavorings to foods in general.
    For more information:
    ConAgra Mills ,  Omaha, Neb.
    Don Trouba ,  402-595-5153 ,
    (For the duck ragu recipe, please contact