To the untrained eye, a row of emmer may not look different from a row of wheat.
But once harvested and processed into flour, emmer can have a profoundly different — and more positive — reaction from the human gut.
Emmer is one of the so-called “ancient grains,” strains of grains and grasses that in some cases can be traced back tens of thousands of years. Ancient grains — also called “heritage” grains — have a simpler cellular structure with better flavors and greater health benefits than their hybridized or genetically modified descendants.
Many dietary experts consider ancient grains healthier because they have more nutrients and are easier to digest. To those with an aversion to gluten and especially sufferers of celiac disease, the difference is a critical one.
Ancient grains also are characterized by their hulls — a characteristic that has been bred out of many contemporary grain hybrids. Hulling before milling requires an extra step, but the result is flour with a rich, nutty flavor. The flour produces baked goods that tend to be dark and dense.
Another advantage to ancient grains: They don’t tolerate commercial fertilizers. That includes glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide, which has been proven to damage human cells in a laboratory setting. Avoiding such chemicals means ancient grains are more organic from the start.
“We wanted to grow something that is actually good for people,” says Dave Meuer, a fourth-generation farmer who, with his wife Leslie, grows emmer and several other ancient grains on their farm near Chilton. “We wanted to offer a product that came from before the time of all-purpose flour.”
Meuer Farms LLC, a winner of numerous state conservation and agri-tourism awards, sustainably grows a variety of edible crops alongside emmer, spelt and einkorn — known collectively as the faro grains. The couple has been growing the ancient grains for the past four years, and the classification already makes up 60 percent of their grain crop.
“The emmer has really taken off, as has the einkorn, which is hard to find locally,” Dave Meuer says. “We also grow durum, the pasta wheat, which is usually only found in the high plains states. Emmer is the mother grain to durum.”
“Durum is not an ancient grain, but it makes a great oatmeal cookie,” Leslie Meuer notes.
Cookies notwithstanding, it’s primarily the health benefits offered by the grains that have attracted consumers’ attention, according to integrative registered dietician and certified diabetes educator Lisa Grudzielanek, health and wellness director Metcalfe’s Market, with locations in Madison and Wauwatosa.
“Interest is growing because many people want to eat food as close as possible to its natural state,” Grudzielanek says. “Ancient grains come from seeds free from hybridization and genetically modified organism manipulation.”
Those with gluten intolerance tend to do better with ancient grains, which have not been engineered to include more gluten and fewer nutritional elements, says Grudzielanek.
“I myself am gluten-sensitive and I do not experience the same uncomfortable symptoms after consuming ancient grains as I do with modern grains,” the dietician adds.
One of the keys to ancient grains’ benefits is their simpler structure, according to Dave Meuer. More complex chromosomal structures often mean more gluten in the grain, which negatively affects many consumers.
“Emmer has 28 chromosomes and einkorn 54 chromosomes, whereas the standard varieties of wheat have about 250 chromosomes, which makes them more difficult to digest,” he says. “People who are gluten-intolerant should be able to eat baked goods made with spelt and other flours.”
However, Meuer and Grudzielanek advise checking with a physician before making any dietary assumptions about any grain or grain-based products.
Demand and supply
The Meuers last year added einkorn — the oldest precursor to wheat that dates back at least 12,000 years — to their ancient grain crop rotation. They harvest and stone-grind their flour in an Austrian-made mill before distributing the product to restaurants, bakeries and grocers. It’s their assurance their flour will be delivered with the highest level of quality control.
“Stone-grinding is a slower, cooler process, which helps maintain the nutrients in the grain,” Dave Meuer says. “We attend a lot of farmers markets in order to introduce consumers to the benefits of ancient grains.”
The couple is proceeding cautiously — “responsibly” in their words — to make sure there is a demand for the grain before they introduce it to local markets like Metcalfe’s and various bakeries that have started making bread and other baked good from their flour.
Apparently, efforts by the Meuers and other champions of ancient grains have been taking hold because interest in products made from their flour is growing, Grudzielanek says.
“The Meuers are our only ancient grain providers and the only local providers I am aware of,” says Grudzielanek, whose employer offers 3,500 Wisconsin-based products in three locations. “It’s also important for growers like the Meuers to offer these ancient products so they don’t become extinct.
“However, as more consumers demand these products, more companies are likely to get behind them,” she adds. “Food companies are businesses and they tend to follow the dollars.”
Brewing gluten-free with ancient grains
With the growing awareness of some people’s sensitivity to gluten, it was only a matter of time before the nation’s brewing industry got in to the act. Two Milwaukee-area brewers have been producing gluten-free beers for a number of years.
Sprecher Brewery in Glendale didn’t necessarily set out to brew a gluten-free beer when they created Shakparo Ale in 2006. The beer was originally developed for Milwaukee’s former African World Festival in 2006 using sorghum and millet to replicate African recipes. The result was an unfiltered, crisp ale with cider-like notes.
For the same event, Sprecher brewed Mbege, an ale made with millet and banana extract. The beer proved less popular and is no longer produced.
Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery long ago scored a win with its New Grist Pilsner, brewed from sorghum, rice, hops, water and yeast, and the first beer to be granted “gluten-free” labeling by the U.S. government. The session ale is openly advertised as appropriate for those with celiac disease and brewery sources indicate that New Grist is one of Lakefront’s best-selling brands.
The brewery now also brews New Grist Ginger, which adds ginger root to the already successful blend. Try it with Asian food, the brewery advises.
Ancient grains: Amaranth to wild rice
As ancient grains emerge into the mainstream, many varieties may not be familiar to consumers. Here is a guide to their nature, origins and flavors.
AMARANTH, a staple food of the Aztecs, is classified as a pseudo-cereal and grown for its edible, starchy seeds. In some varieties, the leaves are edible and nutritious.
BARLEY, when it’s not “pearled” (with its outer bran layer removed), can be nutritious, flavorful and chewy.
BUCKWHEAT is grown for its grain-like seeds. Despite the name, buckwheat is not related to wheat, but rather to sorrel, knotweed and rhubarb.
CHIA is a seed rich in omega-3 fatty acids that was used as a major food crop among the Aztecs.
JOB’S TEARS is a tall grain-bearing tropical plant native to Southeast Asia used as a popular source of cereals and folk medicine. It can be distilled into liquor.
EINKORN, German for “one berry,” is wheat’s precursor. It has tiny, rice-like kernels that have a nutty flavor.
EMMER, another wheat ancestor and the precursor to durum, boasts medium-sized berries more darkly shaded and with an earthier flavor than spelt. It works well in making pasta.
KHORASAN (KAMUT) is an ancient wheat variety with plump, elongated beries and mild flavor. It’s a good addition to soups.
MILLET refers to a group of small-seeded grasses indigenous to semi-arid regions of Asia and Africa and serving as a cereal source worldwide.
QUINOA, a pseudo-cereal and flowering member of the amaranth family, is native to the Andes. It’s also the only complete vegetarian protein source featuring all six amino acids.
SORGHUM is a flowering grass that produces small, gluten-free grains with a soft, starchy texture that can actually be popped like popcorn, but resulting in much smaller kernels.
SPELT is a pale, starchy ancestor to wheat. It’s often used in bread and other dishes where its starchiness acts as a binder.
WILD RICE, a term referring to four different species of grasses native to North America and China, was used among indigenous people for ceremonial and nutritional purpose and offers a crisper, nuttier flavor than its more familiar counterparts. Wild rice from Minnesota and Wisconsin is — by law — harvested via traditional methods.