Forgotten crops, such as ancient grains and many pseudocereals, have been making a comeback due to their high nutritional content. Many of these crops are also ideal alternatives to grains that contain gluten.

Their popularity can be attributed to the fact that there is an increased awareness of the importance of producing a greater variety of crops, not just for a more diverse diet, but also to counter the adverse effects of monocropping. According to Future 50 Foods,a report released by the World Wide Fund for Nature and Knorr, 75% of the global food supply originates from only twelve plant species.

This affects human health because it excludes many valuable sources of nutrition, but it also harms the environment due to the loss of biodiversity, which threatens the resilience of the global food system. Monocropping leaves food production vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as well as crop pests and diseases. In response to this threat, some of the forgotten crops have made their way back into production and therefore people’s diets.

Indigenous sorghum

Sorghum used to be a more widely used staple food in South Africa, where it is an indigenous crop. Even though it has mostly become a popular ingredient in malted beverages such as beer, it is once again making its appearance as high-quality food. Sorghum can be enjoyed as a whole grain in a similar way as rice, or it can be processed into a flour for porridge that is cooked like maize meal. It has a moderate protein content and is high in potassium. It also contains B-vitamins and vitamin E.

Sorghum can be enjoyed as a whole grain or as porridge that is cooked like maize meal.

Gluten-free teff

Teff is an indigenous North African staple grain that has become known as a super grain throughout the world. It is one of the earliest domesticated plants and is now making a return due to its high nutritional value and gluten-free properties. In South Africa it is grown as feed for horses, but the industry has developed in recent years to include a niche export market. It works well as a whole grain, a porridge and flour used for baking. Teff is high in iron and calcium, but it is also a good source of essential fatty acids.

Teff is one of the earliest domesticated plants. It has high nutritional value and gluten-free properties.

Grain-like buckwheat

Despite its name, buckwheat is in no way related to wheat. It is cultivated for its grain-like seeds that are used as a pseudocereal. This means that it is eaten in a way similar to grains, but it is not a real grain because it does not belong to the grass family.

Buckwheat has its origins in the ancient East where it is still popular today. It is commonly eaten in India, Japan, Korea, Tibet and China. It is also popular in eastern Europe. In the West it has also been reintroduced as a suitable gluten-free alternative, and is extremely high in protein and zinc.

Highly nutritious chia

Chia seeds originate from a flowering plant in the mint family that is native to Central America. The Aztecs cultivated it in ancient times, and it was a staple food for Mesoamerican cultures in the pre-Columbian era. Chia seeds pack a high-nutrition punch and are high in protein and healthy fats, as well as B-vitamins and minerals. It can be used in baked goods, smoothies, cereals or salads.

Chia seeds are high in protein and healthy fats, as well as B-vitamins and minerals.

Novel products

Ancient grains are not only making a comeback – they are also debuting as novel product ingredients in a wide range of food and beverages. These seeds and grains can provide a unique texture to yoghurt and add additional nutrients such as protein and minerals. It also has the additional benefit of adding fibre, while making the consumer feel fuller for longer.

In yoghurts with active cultures the fibre also serves as a prebiotic to support the healthy bacteria in the gut. It also works well in other dairy products such as ice cream. Dairy alternatives are a fast-growing food category that could also benefit from the addition of ancient superfood, which will give the product a wider nutritional profile that includes plant-based proteins and amino acids.

Other product forms that work well for ancient grains and seeds are snack bars and granola. They can also be used to manufacture snack food such as crisps and crackers that are higher in protein than regular potato chips, which are high in carbohydrates. These grains can be puffed to create a lighter texture for such snacks.

Sports nutrition products are another food category that could benefit from the addition of ancient grains. For example, milled chia seeds or buckwheat can be added to protein shakes for additional fibre and nutrients. Ancient grains are also being incorporated into breakfast cereals and have even made their way into tortillas and pizza dough.

Higher sustainability

Many of the older crops also have a positive impact on the environment. Planting a greater diversity of plants reduces the risk of depleting the soil of nutrients. Monocropping causes successful crop production to become reliant on supplementary nutrition in the form of fertilisers.

It also means that pests and pathogens from the previous seasons remain in the soil, because their primary source of food remains available, which causes a build-up of pests and pathogens. This leads to a dependence on pesticides which, in turn, poses a threat to wildlife and, like fertilisers, pollutes water systems.Birds, animals and insects also flourish when a wider variety of plants form part of the landscape.

Ancient grains such as sorghum, can help solve this issue if they are used for crop rotation. They are often more resilient to extreme weather conditions caused by climate change. Sorghum, for example, grows in much drier conditions than maize, which requires a lot of water. Buckwheat is commonly used as a cover crop in sustainable crop production systems to suppress weeds and cover fallow land. This practice reduces erosion and water runoff.

Ancient grains and pseudocereals can contribute to a diet that is high in protein and amino acids, but does not rely heavily on meat production. The Future 50 Foods report promotes the consumption of seeds and grains as it cites the effect of field crop production on the environment as less negative compared to that of meat production.

For more information, send an email to the author at ursula@plaasmedia.com.