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Ancient Grains: From Traditional Staple Food to Superfood

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Ancient grains are trending among healthy foodies. These grains have never been processed through hybridisation or genetic modification and are grown as they were centuries ago, offering greater nutritional value than modern grains such as wheat, corn or rice. Increased awareness has resulted in ancient grains being perceived by consumers as more natural, less processed, and highly nutritious, boosting their popularity. They also appeal to consumers seeking new experiences, authenticity and globally-inspired recipes.

Health is driving demand for ancient grains

With rising concerns around the potentially harmful formulations of heavily processed foods, consumers are yearning for simpler times. Product formulations are being stripped to their bare bones for maximum transparency, benefiting several traditional ingredients including ancient grains.

Ancient grains such as amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, millet and teff are naturally free from gluten. Advertising this feature brings huge opportunities to engage with a growing consumer base looking for these alternatives, with health being the key driver of demand.

Ancient grains pack a nutritional punch

Ancient grains are full of fibre and protein containing healthy fats, calcium, iron and other micronutrients. Quinoa, for instance, has been hugely recognised not only for its protein and fibre content, but also micronutrients like zinc, magnesium, iron, B vitamins and vitamin E. However, there are other ancient grains and particularly seeds like flaxseeds and chia seeds that are nutritionally superior to quinoa and are fighting for the same level of recognition.

For those seeking high levels of plant-based protein, greatly desired among vegans and vegetarians, spelt, amaranth and buckwheat would be the most suitable grains, together with quinoa. As ancient grains are not refined, the amount of fibre they contain is naturally higher that modern refined grains. Pearl barley, chia seeds and flaxseeds contain a particularly large amount of fibre.

Ancient grains are also a good source of vitamins and minerals and given that protein claims have become mainstream and fibre is also widespread, advertising these micronutrients is a way of differentiating a product on shelves.

From grain-based foods to plant-based dairy and meat

Ancient grains‐based foodstuffs are a growing business, either as raw ingredients, pre-soaked/pre-cooked or as functional ingredients integrated into packaged foods. New and innovative line extensions with ancient grains have been launched by manufacturers, with a clear evolution of the formulations and types of products, looking at more sophisticated and premium offerings every day.

Bread and breakfast cereals were the first foods into which ancient grains were incorporated, with pasta and noodles following. Snacks were next. The increasing demand for healthy and convenient foods to be consumed on-the-go, resulted in snack bars, sweet biscuits and savoury snacks capitalising on these trends.

The ancient grains trend has evolved into non-grain-based foods such as dairy and meat alternatives. Plant-based alternatives in milk and yoghurt as well as soy, pulses and veggie-based meat substitutes are widespread in many countries, but the inclusion of ancient grains in these categories is still niche and other more promising opportunities are expected to materialise in the coming years.

Free-from-milk alternatives have bright days ahead. Lactose-intolerants and vegans are increasing in number and many consumers are motivated by health and ethical concerns, while others are looking to adorn their social media profiles with the latest plant-based ingredients.

Tapping into convenient foods is also crucial in key countries with frequent consumption of ancient grains. Consumers' busy lifestyles are making convenience a key growth driver of ready meals and on-the-go snacks. The addition of ancient grains to these foods boosts their nutritional value and fits into current health trends towards more wholesome ingredients.

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