Grains like teff, einkorn, amaranth, millet or spelt may sound rather exotic to the average baked foods shopper, but these ancient grains exude a return to perceived wholesome, unprocessed foods. Rachel Cheatham, PhD, founder and chief executive officer of Foodscape Group and adjunct assistant professor of food marketing and communications at Tufts University, said the trend is supported by health-seeking consumers who increasingly value carbohydrate quality while seeking both variety and novelty.
In its 2017 annual report, the Chicago, Illinois, U.S.-based research firm Foodscape Group identified several trends, including three that reinforced these ideas: grains reinvented, inspired ethnic and nostalgia.
Campbell Soup Co., Camden, New Jersey, U.S., identified three fundamental needs that also are driving the ancient grain trend: fueling, craving and connecting. Pepperidge Farm, Norwalk, Connecticut, U.S., features a line of Arnott’s Vita-Weat crackers that are 100% natural with ancient grains and seeds like quinoa and chia. Thomas Griffiths, certified master chef and vice-president for Campbell’s Culinary & Baking Institute, said the chefs and bakers of Campbell Soup, which owns Pepperidge Farm, have been watching the popularity of these grains in the culinary world.
“At their core, ancient grains are incredibly versatile and have a lot of culinary potential, and there’s a lot of discovery and innovation waiting to happen with grains like teff, millet and sorghum, for example,” Griffiths said.
The wholesome, back-to-nature appeal of these trending grains also offers a new taste adventure. Ancient grains have become the new normal on menus and retail shelves, said Bryan Cozzi, senior chef, Campbell’s Culinary & Baking Institute. This is in large part due to the success of quinoa, which may be the most mainstream ancient grain, but others like millet, spelt and kamut are fighting for the same level of familiarity.
Booming awareness and choices
The explosion of ancient grain products on menus and shelves might have begun in 2010. According to Mintel, there was a 269% increase in global food and drink launches describing their products as “ancient” between September 2010 to August 2011 and September 2015 to August 2016 periods. Brands have seen a great deal of success in appealing to customers looking to connect with the past through their eating choices.
B&G Foods, Inc., Parsippany, New Jersey, U.S., hoped to latch onto that connection through its Ortega Good Grains new range of taco shells. The line includes traditional blue corn, white corn and chia seeds, yellow corn and ancient grains, and whole grain corn and lentil. The products align with the 54% of U.S. shoppers who said they would consider whole grain varieties as alternatives to their usual carbohydrates, according to GlobalData.
Smart Flour Foods, Austin, Texas, U.S., a provider of premium, ancient-grain based frozen pizzas, is introducing Snack Bites, a lineup of better-for-you pizza bites that provide a cleaner take on a popular snacking favorite. Made with the company’s flour blend of the sorghum, amaranth and teff, the line also features chia.
“Today’s health-conscious parents are placing extra care into the food choices they make for themselves and their family and seeking out healthier options that don’t sacrifice great taste,” said Charlie Pace, president and CEO, Smart Flour Foods. “Pairing the comfort food taste of classic pizza with on-trend, healthier ancient grains, our Snack Bites give people of all ages a convenient and guilt-free treat that they can enjoy together.”
Other new products include a line of baked extruded snacks from Boulder Canyon, Boulder, Colorado, U.S., made with ancient grains, lentils and beans. Through its Nabisco brand, Mondelez International, East Hanover, New Jersey, U.S., launched Good Thins, which offers consumers a new variety of ancient grain crackers that has no artificial colors or flavors.
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The healthy alternative
According to GlobalData’s 2015 global consumer survey, 51% of U.S. consumers think ancient grains have a positive impact on their health.
Products can capitalize on this healthy halo and the nutritional diversity ancient grains bring to the table, but it’s a challenge to sort out the different health characteristics of each grain. Some are relatively high in protein; others are not. Some contain gluten; others don’t. Food producers cannot assume that consumers have all the facts and need to communicate those key details.
“Gone are the days when the consumer decision was simply between white or whole wheat bread,” Cheatham said. “It’s now a more sophisticated carbohydrate conversation with consumers growing more aware that carbohydrate quality counts as much quantity.”
Health-aware consumers and the popularity of gluten-free diets inspired Caroline Freedman to create NurturMe, Austin, Texas, which produces children’s snacks using ancient grains and probiotics. The company’s cookies include three varieties — cocoa, honey, and maple and cinnamon — made with quinoa, amaranth, millet and sorghum. Founder Freedman, CEO, said the company wasn’t expecting such a rapid response from consumers back when it was started in 2010.
“We found that adults are familiar with quinoa as naturally gluten-free, non-allergenic and we thought there might be a learning curve when we introduced our products,” Freedman said. “But there was a halo effect from parents who were already familiar with quinoa’s health benefits.”
“Ancient grains are clearly a mainstream trend now and have been for a few years,” Vierhile said. “Companies like Kellogg Co., Campbell’s, Mondelez International and Del Monte Foods have all placed bets that ancient grains can drive sales growth and recapture consumers who may have defected to natural or organic brands.”
This change did not happen overnight, Vierhile added, but it has been an ongoing process that began in the natural and organic food industry and gained traction from there. In just two years, the percentage of Americans who said they are familiar with chia has doubled. In 2015, 33% said they were not familiar with chia and that shrunk to 18% by 2017, according to GlobalData consumer surveys.
He added that millennials are more likely to seek out ancient grains than older consumers. According to a 2017 GlobalData consumer survey, 40% of Americans aged 25 to 34 said that they would consider using grains like quinoa and spelt as an alternative to traditional carbohydrates, compared with 33% of consumers overall and 26% of consumers age 65 and above.
Ancient heads into the future
The numbers don’t lie; ancient grains have enjoyed huge success over the past two years. GlobalData’s Product Launch Analytics database of new products showed that launches featuring terms like “ancient grains,” “chia,” or “quinoa” grew to 8.8% in 2017 from 5.9% in 2016.
“The ancient grains story has been out there long enough that even consumers with only casual interest in ingredient trends have now heard of ancient grains like chia and quinoa,” Vierhile said. “This awareness has begun to translate into increased sales.”
But will it last?
Cheatham thinks so.
“Looking ahead, expect ancient, whole and grains like quinoa to continue to be in demand by health-seeking consumers,” she said. “Products that showcase and respect the inherent grain nutrition from harvest to end product will gain the most traction.”
Use of lesser-known ancient grains is also a trend to keep an eye on, Vierhile noted, and may be useful in reinventing tired products.
“Teff is one of the lesser-known ancient grains that was once extremely rare in packaged foods but is becoming less so and is attracting interest as a result,” he said.
Attention also is moving toward a new generation of ancient grains with interesting stories and growth potential like Tsampa. An ancient staple food of the Himalayas, Tsampa is just beginning to appear on the new products front and could signal the emergence of a new wave of ancient grains, Vierhile said.
Ancient grains impart a healthy halo to foods that could use an extra health boost, and the future looks bright for these time-tested alternatives.