Ancient grains like teff, quinoa and freekeh may sound different and a little daunting.
But as Lancaster County residents begin to view them as healthful and exotic rather than just odd, they’re becoming more common.
“They’re not scary, and people are getting more comfortable with them,” says Jill Good-Miller, buyer at Rhubarb’s Market in Manheim Township.
Ancient grains are older varieties of grains or seeds that haven’t been hybridized. The ancient grains trend picked up locally several years ago as celebrities including Dr. Oz touted them as nutritious “super grains.”
As restaurants and a wider range of food companies give ancient grains more exposure, stores such as Rhubarb’s now sell more of them than traditional starches.
Buckwheat, quinoa, farro and freekeh are new (old) ways to add variety to your diet, too. Just as chicken, beef and pork offer different nutritional benefits in a food group, expanding the variety of grains in your diet can offer a wider nutritional balance, says Nicole Lefever, a dietitian with Mid Atlantic Nutrition Specialists in Lancaster.
Ancient grain sales jump
Ancient grains continue to gain popularity in the Top 20 food trends tracked by the National Restaurant Association. The top side dish trends include nonwheat pasta, such as buckwheat noodles, and quinoa, black rice and pickled vegetables.
As ancient grains become more common and adapted into more products, including an ancient grains variety of Cheerios, sales are skyrocketing.
Sales of kamut, a high-protein wheat with a chewy texture and nutty flavor, increased 686 percent in the year ending July 2014, according to the Whole Grains Council.
Sales of spelt, a disease-resistant plant embraced by organic farmers, increased 363 percent. Freekeh, a high-fiber grain, saw sales increase 159 percent. Quinoa, technically a seed, saw sales growth of 35 percent.
Locals are trying ancient grains for a wide variety of reasons.
Many people learn about them when researching healthy cooking.
They may choose ancient grains because many — amaranth and teff among them — are gluten-free, which some people require because of an allergy or simply prefer, says Trish Haverstick, co-owner of Lemon Street Market in Lancaster.
“They are fitting in with people in Lancaster County who seem to be seeking out exotic flavors of the world,” Good-Miller notes.
For example, injera, a spongy Ethiopian flatbread, is made with teff flour.
Cooking with ancient grains
Some local grocery stores and specialty food stores now carry the grains, which can be cooked and served as a side dish or in a salad.
Another option is swapping traditional pasta for something like einkorn pasta. Ancient grains are also available in cups or pouches of easy-to-cook pilafs.
Substituting a small portion of an ancient grain flour, such as a cup, to a recipe calling for all-purpose flour will add the nutritional benefits without changing the end product too drastically, Haverstick says.
Finding locally grown ancient grains can be difficult, but that’s changing as the trend continues to gain traction, Haverstick says. She’s been able to find emmer in the region.
Because ancient grains aren’t highly processed, they can go bad, too. Haverstick tells customers to store the grains in the refrigerator or freezer.
The higher price can be an obstacle as well, but Good-Miller suggests buying in bulk and cooking the grains at home can save money.
Nutritional benefits aside, no single food can cure every health problem, Lefever says, but she’s excited to see people experiment with alternative grains.
Here are four ancient grains to try, with insight provided by local experts and the Whole Grains Council.
Claim to fame: A pseudo-cereal that can help you stay fit and nimble.
Origin: Europe’s Balkan region.
Health benefits: High in protein and potassium, zinc, copper and manganese
Why it’s popular here: “People around here are becoming more open to trying new flavors” — Jill Good-Miller
Claim to fame: The original wheat, it hasn’t been hybridized.
Origin: Georgia, Armenia and Turkey.
Health benefits: May be much higher in antioxidants than common wheat.
Why it’s popular here: “It’s a wheat, and people are familiar with wheat.” — Trish Haverstick
Claim to fame: A seed that’s nutritious, versatile and cooks quickly.
Origin: South America; quinoa was sacred to the Incas.
Health benefits: Protein-rich, has all essential amino acids, high in potassium.
Why it’s popular here: “It’s very versatile. It’s a mellow flavor that takes well to seasonings.” — Jill Good-Miller
Claim to fame: Powers Ethiopian’s long-distance runners.
Origin: Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Health benefits: High in calcium, high in a type of fiber that helps manage blood sugar.
Why it’s popular here: Teff’s high in iron, so it’s great for vegetarians. — Nicole Lefever