The Importance of Ancient Grains

Published on 27 Feb
8 min read

The western world loves a food trend. But, what if a food trend could sustain a population and not just feed us but also nourish us? We’ve been inspired to add trendy, exotic grains such as fonio, chia and quinoa to our diets. However, at home we can boast healthy, sustainable, locally-grown grains such as barley, spelt, oats and emmer. Although the media has reported the health benefits of consuming local grains, they have yet to impact our lives as much as the exotic stock.

Walking in Fields of Grain at Gilchesters Organics
Walking in Fields of Grain at Gilchesters Organics

In 2017, 15.2 million tonnes of wheat were grown in the UK[1]. Some of this is used to create products such as bread and a portion of the rest is used to create biofuels and also for animal feed, which is another conversation altogether. Native crops to the UK include oats, rye and barley, which were typically grown in the North, and wheat was grown in the south and east because of the climate. The focus on modern strains of wheat has blinded us to the benefits of a varied grain diet. Grains are a cheap way to include essential nutrients in our diets. It’s time to change how we view and consume grains.

Grains are Good

Ancient grains and whole grains are renowned for their health properties. It is believed that these foods can help combat modern afflictions ranging from cancer to diabetes and depression[2].

Wheat, in its many guises, is a crop that thrives in our climate but it is also a crop that has received a bad rap for a long time, despite the Department of Health’s advice that starchy carbohydrates should make up 1/3 of our daily diets. Grains, and other starchy carbohydrates such as potatoes, have been smeared with notions that suggest it is bad for our health, bad for the environment and not a necessary component to the modern diet.

Wheat-based bakery products are one of the most consumed foods in the UK; around 96% of the population buy bread and other derivatives[3] but demand has dropped over the past few years. A recent survey asked Brits what would make them buy more bread[3]:

  • 29% said bread that lasts longer
  • 24% said bread with fewer carbs
  • 22% said fresher loaves
  • 18% said bread with added benefits like vitamins

A loaf made in a local bakery, using locally grown ancient grains can tick all these boxes. This could also potentially lower the costs of the weekly shopping list.

The 3 original ancient wheat varieties, Emmer, Einkorn and Khorasan, are what would be termed as ‘functional foods’ because they have been less tampered with and are also easier to grow organically so they retain their nutritional content. There are many ways to increase the health properties of these grains through methods such as sprouting and fermenting.

Eating 'real bread' can make sure we hit our daily nutritional targets
The rise of the artisan loaf has brought to our attention to the diversity and flavour of ancient grains

Get Your Grain Fix Locally

Although the buzz for organic, unrefined wheat has yet to make a massive splash into our diets, we are lucky enough here in Northumberland to be able to enjoy locally-grown, organic heritage grains by a farmer with a PhD in wheat genetics at Gilchesters Organics.

On the farm, they grow heritage grains, mill them and also research the importance of these ancient grains including Emmer, Einkorn and spelt. The grains which have been selected for the farm, through an enormous amount of research, all thrive under organic growing conditions. Farms such as Gilchesters Organics promote agroecological farming methods to highlight these fantastic ancient grains, by supporting them you are supporting the diversity. Gilchesters is located just 2 miles from Hadrian’s Wall.

Eating 'real bread' can make sure we hit our daily nutritional targets
Andrew & Sybille Wilkinson of Gilchesters Organics Farm

Local bakers in Northumberland, including Alice’s Artisan Bakery and Bread & Roses, use stone ground flours from Gilchesters Organics. You can also buy their flour to bake your own bread at home from local shops and from Gilchesters Organics website.

The Strain of the Grain

Ancient grains are essentially ‘whole grains’ which are grains which have not been refined. Whole grains contain all parts of the grain which are the bran, germ and endosperm.

  • The bran is the outer part of the grain kernel, it contains antioxidants, B vitamins and fibre[4].
  • The germ is the embryo so it has the prospect to further germinate  It contains B vitamins, protein, minerals and healthy fats[4].
  • The endosperm is the largest part of the kernel and its job is to support and feed the germ. It is made up of starchy carbohydrates, proteins which provide energy for the plant[4].

During the refined process, the germ and bran are removed. This results in around 25% loss of the grain’s protein, as well as most of the fibre and an estimated 17 essential nutrients, are reduced during processing[4]. There is the argument that vitamins and minerals are added into refined products, however, in their original form these nutrients are better for us and more easily absorbed. The exact nutritional quantities that are lost are not all replaced in this process. When this quick approach to milling was first introduced in the 19th century, the lack of nutrients in the flour resulted in devastating diseases throughout the working population such as pellagra and beriberi which occurred because of nutritional deficiencies, especially essential B vitamins. This shows how important our daily bread actually is.

Using the traditional practice of stone milling, that dates back to the 3rd century B.C. [5], helps to ensure that all parts of the kernel are crushed and kept. As technology adapted to the pressure of creating more flour quickly, stone milling gave way to roller milling during the Industrial Revolution. After being ‘rolled’ a few times, the flour is sifted to remove the bran and germ. This creates a lighter flour which is then suitable for making white, fluffy bread and pastries. This type of flour is also more stable and has a longer shelf life. It is important to note that modern wheat strains are a result of hybridisation, progressive breeding programmes, rather than being tampered with chemically. This is reasurring if you love a white loaf!

Stone milling keep all the parts of the grain so nutritional content isn't lost
Stone milling keep all the parts of the kernel so nutritional content isn’t lost

The only concern we should have when consuming grains should be the production and processing methods. Sourcing local grains, flours and bread can give us the opportunity to appreciate this important fuel source which is an integral part of our diets.

Ancient Grain Varieties

Whilst only some of these grains can be sourced locally, listing them offers food for thought on your next grain-based meal. In the south-east, a British company called Hodmedods is aiming to get British-grown legumes, seeds and grains, including some of more exotic origin like quinoa, on dinner plates around the country. These grains do not need to be milled to make bread. Many of these grains are great used in favourite dishes such as barley risotto, spelt crackers and chia seed pudding.


  • Spelt
  • Khorasan (Kamut)
  • Freekeh
  • Bulgar
  • Farro
  • Einkorn
  • Emmer
Ancient grain Einkorn
Ancient grain Einkorn


  • Millet
  • Barley
  • Teff
  • Oat
  • Sorghum
Heritage grain Barley
Heritage grain Barley


  • Quinoa
  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Chia
Ancient exotic grain Quinoa
Ancient exotic grain Quinoa

Complex Carbs?

Many of these whole grains, especially the wheat varieties, contain lower levels of gluten. It has been suggested that because of the refining process and the removal of parts of the kernel have subsequently resulted in gluten intolerances. Furthermore, many intolerances and problems associated with consuming cereals, such as wheat, could be explained by the increase in pesticide use.

Glyphosate is possibly the most well-known herbicide that is used in the UK. It is a carcinogen and exposure over time has been linked to endocrine system problems and negatively affect our natural gut biome[6]. It is estimated that around 30% of UK bread contains traces of this toxic chemical. It is also harmful to the environment such as killing the goodness in the soils and inhibiting earthworms progress in the soil[6].

Harvesting grain is a big job
Harvesting grain is a big job

Interest in the older strains of grains has been gaining momentum over the past few years as we review our diets and scandals that have occurred in the mass-produced food industry. This has the potential to create jobs growing ancient grains, milling them and baking with them. Projects such as Scotland the Bread are attempting to create this positive movement and reestablish the essence and nutrition of bread back into communities. The project also aims to highlight the importance of using locally grown grains. For example, in 2015 over 1 million tonnes of wheat was grown in Scotland, however, it relied on importing wheat to create loaves of bread[7].

Kernels of Truth

Wherever you go, you’ll find grains as the base of many meals. It has been so important to our civilisation over thousands of years. It’s important that we get the right nutrition from our daily bread and stop worrying about calories, fat content and eating carbohydrates. Enjoying simple, beautiful foods like bread is one of life’s greatest pleasures which everyone should enjoy. Why not switch to ancient grains to see if you can tell the difference?

A loaf made from Gilchesters Organics flour
A loaf made from Gilchesters Organics flour

Check out the Healthy Minor Cereals project for more information. Join the conversation on social media. Follow Foodful on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Disclaimer: Please note that ancient wheat strains are not suitable for those suffering from coeliac disease. If you are interested in consuming the grains and pseudocereals please make sure they come from a gluten and wheat free environment.

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