An illustration shows spikes of different types of wheat: (1) Polish wheat (2) Club wheat (3) Common bread wheat (4) Poulard wheat (5) Durum wheat (6) Spelt (7) Emmer (8) Einkorn. The Library of Congress/Flickr The Commons hide caption
Consumer interest in healthy grains could sow the seeds for some long-forgotten bread wheats to make a comeback, according to an opinion article released Monday in Trends in Plant Science — presumably the Vogue of botany.
"People are interested in healthy things that are not modified, that are non-GMO," says Friedrich Longin, a plant breeder at the University of Hohenheim, Germany, who wrote the opinion article with his colleague Tobias Würschum. Increased wheat diversity could bolster food security, the authors argue, while satisfying consumer demand. This is particularly true, Longin says, in the U.S. and Europe, where most diners have enough food and enjoy the luxury of seeking novelty in their dishes.
Today, most farmers grow only one subspecies of bread wheat — Triticum aestivum — the ancestor of which emerged more than 10,000 years ago in the area that now contains Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, according to Dipak Santra, an agronomist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who was not involved in writing the opinion article. But humans likely ate other species of wheat much earlier. A species called "einkorn" arose well before humans, 5 million to 7 million years ago, and another species related to pasta wheat, called "emmer," originated around 400,000 years ago, also in the Fertile Crescent, Santra says. While some foodies have embraced these grains in their diet, and emmer cultivation is relatively common in India, the ancient wheats are hardly kitchen staples in the U.S. and Europe, and they're uncommon sources of bread.
A test plot of spelt on a farmer's field near Chappell, Neb. Courtesy of Dipak Santra
So how did today's bread wheat come to dominate the world of grain? Unlike ancient wheats, modern bread wheat has no hull casing around its grains, making it easier to process into flour. What's more, the "Green Revolution" of the mid-20th century made this wheat variety shorter and stiffer, the better to prevent falling over and fungal infection. As a result, modern bread wheat yields three times more wheat per acre than older species, Santra says.
Ancient varieties probably won't replace mainstream bread wheat in feeding the almost 10 billion people on Earth by 2050. But old grains have some advantages as supplementary wheats — like distinct flavor, according to the opinion authors. Longin tells The Salt that einkorn has a nutty sweetness gourmets are sure to love. And einkhorn and emmer are particularly high in eyesight-friendly carotenoids.