Meeting demand for ancient grains

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Interest in ‘ancient’ grains like quinoa, sorghum and teff has soared, not least because of their gluten-free quality. That means expanding supply to keep up with demand.

Some companies supplying ingredients for the manufacture of gluten-free foods have turned to ancient grains for inspiration – especially since they tend to have high nutrient levels and there have been concerns that products made with rice, corn and potato flour leave nutrients to be desired.

For instance ConAgra Mills in the US has a range of naturally gluten-free flours from quinoa, teff, amaranth, millet and sorghum. This year it launched a new flour blended from these that is intended to tick all the nutrition boxes for gluten-free eaters.

Companies that sell ancient grains for home preparation have enjoyed new popularity for their products too. Marjorie Leventry of wholesaler Inca Organics, who has been sourcing heirloom quinoa (non-hybrid) from Ecuador since the late 1990s, told FoodNavigator.com that demand has surged in the last five years and the gluten-free trend – together with wholegrain interest – is a driving factor.

This year however she has had to source some of her quinoa needs from neighbouring Bolivia (“standard, not heirloom”​). ​Bolivia supplies around half the world’s quinoa, while Ecuador is said to supply around 20 per cent and Peru around 30 per cent.

Statistics on global quinoa production are not available; the FAO’s agricultural commodity resource has no data at present. A source at the Quinoa Corporation, based in California, said that any figures bandied about are likely to be unreliable as it is not an organised crop. Tens of thousands of farmers grow it, scattered over a large area.

But in Bolivia, quinoa growing farmers are very much in the driving seat. Where cooperatives used to exist, they have now collapsed because farmers can name their price at the farm gate – said to be around three times what they received three years ago in some cases. Efforts to increase production are underway, but this is not just a matter of growing more but infrastructure and cleaning plants are needed too.

Outside Latin America other countries are eyeing up the potential in places with suitable conditions. For instance Egypt is reportedly irrigating tracts of desert land so it can boost exports with non-wheat alternatives including quinoa; and a Canadian company, the Northern Quinoa Corporation, distributes quinoa grown on the prairies of Saskatchewan.

Sorghum story

Sorghum, another gluten-free grain, has a long history in the United States. In a good year, such as 2007, production can be as much as 12.6m metric tonnes.

The majority of US sorghum is destined for animal feed and ethanol production. It has been eaten by humans in Asia and Africa for centuries, but it is a relatively recent addition to the US diet.

The National Sorghum Producers Association says gluten-free foods have been instrumental in encouraging human consumption.

Even so, food and other industrial uses (non animal feed and non ethanol) currently account for just 2 per cent of the US harvest.

Teff luck

Like quinoa, teff is a grain with strong geographical links. Grown mainly in Ethiopia and Eritrea (and, to a lesser degree in India and Australia) it has formed an important nutritious part of the diet there for centuries.

But teff, too, is piquing interest from farmers elsewhere. It is now cultivated in Idaho’s Snake Valley and The Teff Company, based there, has expanded distribution from serving the Ethiopian community and restaurants to natural food stores throughout the US.

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