Ancient grains perfect fit for contemporary trends

From beverages and bakery to baby food, ancient grains such as quinoa, hemp and barley offer curb appeal and a healthy halo.

Alex Smolokoff, Editorial coordinator

September 29, 2020

8 Min Read
Ancient grains perfect fit for contemporary trends .jpg

Grains like quinoa, chia, kamut, millet and others may be considered “ancient,” but in a time when consumers are more interested in innovative, sustainable, clean label products than ever before, these ingredients are seeing their popularity in modern times continue to grow.

The wholesale avoidance of gluten that has taken hold over the last decade—combined with the inherent sustainable, clean label attributes of ancient grains—has sparked a renewed interest in these ingredients that doesn’t appear to be slowing down. From the bakery, where proprietary SPINS data shows a 7.4% sales growth over the past year for products made with ancient or whole grains, to the frozen breakfast aisle (25.1% sales increase over the past year), to unexpected places like baby foods and beverages, consumer interest in products made with these ingredients shows a clear trend: Ancient and whole grains are “in.”

Any trend in the food and beverage industry begins first and foremost with consumers—and today’s consumers are as discerning as ever when it comes to what they eat and drink. Consumers are seeking food and beverage that delivers on two fronts: both containing functional ingredients and claims related to personal and planetary health, and devoid of ingredients perceived as unnatural or unhealthy such as sugar, gluten, GMOs, and artificial sweeteners and preservatives. A recent survey from Euromonitor International showed more than 30% of consumers look for “all natural” claims on labels; “has limited or no artificial ingredients” and “does not contain GMOs” also ranked high on consumer checklists. The 2020 International Food Information Council (IFIC) Food & Health Survey showed similar results. Nearly half (49%) of consumers said whether a product is considered “processed” affects their purchasing decision, a 43% increase versus 10 years ago. Additionally, the percentage of Americans following a diet has increased over the last year, from 38% in the 2019 survey to 43% now; some of the top diets being followed include “clean eating,” “avoiding gluten,” and “low- or no-carb.”

“As consumers increasingly avoid overly processed foods, clean label grains offer an alternative to bleached, refined wheat flour,” noted Rikka Cornelia, product manager at Martin Bauer Group.

Of course, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic only serves to increase consumer awareness of health and eating patterns; FMCG Gurus survey data showed from April to July 2020, 62% of consumers have become more conscious about their health, with 79% saying they planned to eat healthier and 56% saying they would be more cognizant of natural claims on product labels.

Ancient grains check many of these boxes. By definition, these grains have not been altered through hybridization or genetic modification; they are lower in carbs than white and even whole wheat flours; and many are free of gluten, allowing them to be enjoyed by consumers avoiding gluten for health or other reasons.

With the market clearly trending up for ancient grains and the inherent benefits they offer, the onus lands on brands and formulators to provide what consumers are looking for with innovative and, most importantly, tasty options.

Innovating with ancient grains

One area this innovation is being seen in is beverages, especially within the dairy alternatives category. U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods increased 11% in 2019, bringing its total market value to US$4.5 billion, according to the Plant Based Foods Association; Nestle reported 87% of Americans are incorporating plant-based protein into their diets, with nearly two-thirds doing so at least once per week.

This trend toward plant-based beverages has been good news for oat milk, which has gone from a niche hipster coffee-spot offering to ubiquitous in a short time; countless varieties can now be found anywhere from supermarket coolers to global chains including Starbucks and Dunkin’. Sales of oat milk, according to proprietary Nielson findings, increased a whopping 289% year-over-year from March to June 2020. The trendy ingredient has even migrated to other dairy-replacement options such as coffee creamers, ice cream and yogurt.

It isn’t only oats replacing traditional dairy, either. Brown rice, quinoa and even hemp are being turned into creamy, satisfying milk alternatives by brands like Elmhurst, Glanbia Nutritionals and others.

Another ingredient seeing renewed interest is barley. Known primarily for its role in bread and beer production, barley—a good source of protein, fiber, manganese and B vitamins—is now showing up in new and innovative ways. The brand Take Two Barley Milk, according to co-founder and chief operating officer Matt Olsofsky, “bring[s] back the joy and nostalgia of drinking a glass of milk” for those avoiding dairy. It can replace milk in bakery items as well. Barley is also showing up in baby food formulations such as Gerber’s Grain & Grow Morning Bowls containing a mix of barley, oats, quinoa and fruit; as well as purees from NuturMe and Plum Organics.

Quinoa has seen perhaps the biggest and longest-lasting boon from this renewed interest in grains. From 2007 to 2015, U.S. imports of quinoa increased a staggering 1,257%, according to USDA. The U.N. even declared 2013 “The International Year of Quinoa.” The versatile grain can be found in everything from nondairy milks to cereals and breakfast bars, and is quickly becoming a pantry staple.

Truly fitting into the spirit of “old becoming new again,” chia is also seeing renewed interest beyond being grown in clay pots and kept as a pet. As meal replacement becomes increasingly common, especially among Millennials and Gen Z, grains such as chia and flax become attractive clean label options. According to Joni Huffman, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Healthy Food Ingredients (HFI), “We are seeing a surge of interest in chia, which can add thickness and texture to beverages, and continued growth in flax innovation for bars, cereals and supplements.”

And of course, with new and novel applications come new and novel ingredients. Millet, sorghum, teff and fonio—West African grains—are popping up in various ways. “Fonio, as a gluten-free grain alternative and low on the glycemic index, has surfaced as one of the most exciting food trends of 2020,” noted Malick Diedhiou, commodity trader at Terra Ingredients. He noted fonio’s nutty flavor and light, couscous-like texture make it ideal for savory and sweet applications alike.

Of course, once the demand and available ingredients have been identified, a brand must understand and adapt to the challenges that come with formulating finished products.

Formulation hurdles

Paula Labine, marketing director, milling and starch, ADM, noted that while bakery items like bread are typically able to tolerate the addition of ingredients such as whole and ancient grains, too much can result in problems. “Adding too many whole grains comes with the risk of structure weakness due to diluted gluten strength,” she explained. Additionally, too much replacement of gluten-containing wheat with gluten-free grains can impact a product’s ability to rise. Adjustments in moisture content and mixing time can mitigate that a bit, as can the addition of other ingredients, such as psyllium, a dietary fiber that can provide structure. Labine also pointed out certain whole grains can impart a bitter taste; since flavor is still the top driver of food and beverage purchases, avoiding that off-flavor is paramount.

In beverages, other challenges can arise. Don Trouba, senior director go-to-market at The Annex by Ardent Mills, noted grain-based beverages can become gritty if the grains are not milled finely enough. To ensure the smooth texture consumers expect from a dairy-like beverage, Ardent Mills utilizes a proprietary grinding system to produce a super fine particle size, “which will lessen gritty mouthfeel in beverage applications,” Trouba said.

And, of course, no matter how innovative or tasty a product is, consumers will naturally be hesitant to try novel ingredients or formats they haven’t heard of or seen before. On this front, formulators have several solutions at their disposal. Labine suggested pairing unfamiliar ingredients with familiar ones. “Consumers are often more willing to try something new and unfamiliar when recognizable whole grains are also present in the application,” she said. Additionally, focusing on other attributes can entice consumers to branch out and try new products. Brands would do well to tout the health benefits, such as prebiotic properties or protein content, of their novel products and ingredients to get consumers’ attention.

Sustainability top of mind

Consumers are also more willing than ever to try—and even pay more for—products that are sustainably and ethically sourced. Recent surveys from Informa Markets’ NEXT Data & Insights team showed 58% of consumers are willing to pay more for products that demonstrate environmentally responsible practices, and 60% would pay more for products that demonstrate socially responsible practices. The survey also showed 68% of consumers would pay more for high-quality ingredients; 65% said they value who grew their food and how it was made. That’s good news for grains like Kernza—the brand name (from the Lands Institute) for Thinopyrum intermedium, or intermnediate wheatgrass—hailed as “an ecologist’s dream” for its ability to serve as a rotation crop due to its ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and retain it in soil, as well as prevent soil erosion.

“Cascadian Farm [owned by General Mills] consumers are sustainability-minded and want to feel a connection to their food choices,” noted Mollie Wulff, spokesperson for General Mills. “Kernza fits that well because of its potential to capture more carbon from the atmosphere and store it in its 8- to 10-foot long roots.”

Sparked by the gluten-free movement and boosted by the growing trend of clean eating and sustainability-minded thinking, ancient grains are finding themselves back in the limelight. Ingredients like quinoa, chia, brown rice and others are finding new homes in products from bakery items to nondairy milks to baby foods. Health-forward attributes—fewer carbs, more protein, prebiotic properties and more—combined with increasingly sustainable and traceable supply chains, put ancient grains at the intersection of many of today’s most popular industry trends. So long as manufacturers and CPG brands continue to formulate innovative products that taste great, ancient grains are here to stay.

About the Author(s)

Alex Smolokoff

Editorial coordinator, Informa

After a career in sportswriting, Alex Smolokoff was on the editorial team at Informa Markets from December 2018 through spring of 2022, working on Food & Beverage Insider. In his free time, he enjoys watching his hometown Boston sports teams.   

Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the healthy food and beverage industry.
Join 30,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like