Ancient grains. Heirloom wheat makes its comeback in the USA

Sustainably grown ancient grains and traditional bakeries are coming back. Could this be the solution to widespread gluten allergies?

Discussions about GMOs, carcinogenic pesticides and food allergies are making Americans take a step back, looking back to a time when nature ruled. The US, where wheat is the principal food grain, is seeing a resurgence of ancient varieties such as Turkey Hard Red Winter Wheat, which came to the country in the 19th century, and the older Kamut, spelt, emmer and the most ancient of them all, einkorn.

Whilst genetically modified wheat isn’t grown commercially, the crop has gone through intensive hybridization over time, a process driven by profits rather than health benefits in recent times. Modern wheat has a high gluten content and is often grown industrially as a monoculture, an outdated and unsustainable system.


Ever more mid and small scale farmers are experimenting with ancient grains as demand for them is growing steadily, according to the Smithsonian Magazine. This is good news for the environment, consumers and farmers given that these grains are mostly grown according to sustainable and organic practices that follow crop rotations and take good care of the soil. The result is a much higher level of nutrients and vitamins, on top of superior flavour.


Wheat © Wang Zheng/Corbis


Of additional interest is the fact that some people who are intolerant or even allergic to gluten can consume ancient wheat varieties without suffering any of the symptoms associated with modern wheat. Since these grains were either never hybridized, such as einkorn, or if they were it was according to age-old techniques, they contain less gluten and gliadin, a class of protein present in wheat that often causes inflammation.


There are many uses for these precious kernels. The sky is the limit, and recipes abound online. Most notable is sourdough bread made with freshly milled whole grain flour. Besides being delicious, it can help those sensitive to gluten: sourdough, or wild yeast, breaks down the protein rendering it more digestible and reducing its inflammatory quality. The fermentation also eliminates phytic acid, an antinutrient naturally present in most grains, legumes, nuts and seeds that inhibits nutrient absorption. Sprouting grains is another technique that increases the nutrient content and makes grains easier to digest.

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