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About 380,000 plant species are known worldwide, of which about 7,000 are thought to have been used by humans. Astonishingly, despite this tremendous diversity, only around 150 species are used for human consumption today and only 30 account for 95% of human calorie requirements. Fully 50% of human nutritional needs are met by the harvest of just three — wheat, rice and maize (corn).
In our pursuit of improved nutrition, pest and disease resistance as well as tolerance to climate change, there is merit in reconsidering some of the so-called “ancient” grains to complement or enhance the staple crops. Of course, these neglected cereals, which are lower yielding and often more difficult to process, are not likely to make a substantial contribution to world food supply in the short term. Nevertheless they offer a precious reservoir of traits that we would be unwise to lose.
Evolution of wheat
Emmer and Einkorn spread westwards through settlements in the Danube and later Rhine valleys where rye also emerged as a crop since it was away from the risk of cross pollination with its wild antecedents. As late as the mid-19th century Einkorn was still being cultivated in central Europe, but now it is only found in very small pockets.
Spelt is the ancient cereal having traits that show most immediate promise. Its origins are unclear, but evidence suggests it developed in the same area and time as bread wheat around the Caspian Sea. By the mid-19th century it was known as the Swabian cereal due to its popularity in the German speaking countries of central Europe. More recently it has enjoyed a revival among organic farmers not only in Europe but also the United States, Canada and Australia. Spelt flour is used in blended or pure form in a variety of baked goods.
Cultivation of Einkorn, Emmer and spelt by both organic and conventional means is discussed with details of the diseases encountered in differing growing conditions.
A chapter is — perhaps surprisingly — devoted to durum, which, as a “naked” wheat, originated at least 5,000 BC and by the second millennium BC was the most important wheat type in the Mediterranean region. It survives such that worldwide production of its modern descendants now exceeds 30 million tonnes and is principally used for pasta and thus the best characteristics for this purpose are explained. The discovery of a complex of several genes on the chromosome 1B, which is responsible for good or bad protein quality, was an important milestone in more recent researching of durum wheat.
Khorasan wheat, whose origins are mysterious and may have come from Iran, is currently being exploited, particularly in North America, where it is growing in popularity under the brand name of Kamut. Its grain structure is similar to durum but the kernels are much larger and it is thought it could be usefully cross bred with durum to extend the gene pool.
Wheat allergies discussed
A very useful chapter is devoted to disease patterns and allergies ascribed to wheat consumption such as gluten intolerance and celiac disease. A good explanation is given of the many misconceptions and myths that have grown in recent years to irrationally demonize wheat consumption. Hypotheses are offered to explain why it is that a very small minority of people genuinely actually suffer from gluten-induced disorders.
Millet is thought to have originated in Asia and a tropical form called sorghum is widely grown in Africa where it was the staple crop before the introduction of maize. Its drought tolerance and nutritional qualities make it an excellent crop for poorer agricultural regions, whereas in developed regions they often are grown as feedstock for the production of biogas.
St John’s rye is a little known but old form of perennial rye cultivated in unfavorable mountain areas until the 19th century. Breeding efforts were launched in the 1960s to create a modern perennial cultivated rye through new crossings between perennial and annual cultivated types.
Finally, there are the topical pseudocereal species: buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth and chia, which are annuals but are not grasses, and produce seeds that may be used like cereals. Quinoa, the so called Inca’s rice from the Andean region, is currently enjoying a lot of interest because of its ability to thrive in hostile growing conditions.
The book stresses that opportunities exist for further research to identify characteristics of these ancient and lesser known grains that may be beneficially incorporated into human foods. The market for “functional” and gluten-free foods is growing fast and complements the staples we rely for our basic nutrition.
The high quality of the content, presentation and printing of this book ensure that those interested in the subject matter will return again and again with pleasure in the pursuit of further information. Although the publication is inevitably written in a German context, most of the content has a universal relevance.
The concluding paragraph of the book includes the following passages, which sum up its general message:
“Our beloved bread is thus no longer a simple basic food, but is about to become functional food as well – and this even without any chemical additives.
The contents of vitamins, minerals, unsaturated acids, phytochemicals and dietary fibre in our food can now be influenced by every baker……we have the opportunity to re-establish ancient grains like einkorn, to introduce new crops (amaranth, quinoa, chia), to substantially increase diversity in the field and on our tables and help the environment at the same time.”