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Modern times and ancient grains

From bulk to HMR, grocers are seeing dynamite sales of quinoa.

EVERY OTHER DAY, PUSATERI’S FINE FOODS IN Toronto prepares about 75 pounds of quinoa for its home meal replacement line–and sells out of it.

There’s quinoa salad with roasted squash, pesto chicken with red quinoa and black quinoa with zucchini and roasted peppers.

That all of this quinoa gets gobbled up does not surprise Tony Cammalleri, corporate chef for the upscale three-store grocery chain. The way Cammalleri sees it, quinoa ticks all the right boxes for today’s customers.

Health? Quinoa has plenty of vitamin B, magnesium, calcium and iron. Food trends? Quinoa meets several of today’s hottest: it’s packed with protein, fibre and–you guessed it– it’s gluten-free. Ethnic? Quinoa is an Andean diet staple dating back 5,000 years.

Even if they can’t pronounce it correctly (“KEEN-wah”), shoppers understand that in our hustle bustle world, quinoa is an ancient grain worth trying.

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But it’s not just quinoa. A veritable Machu Picchu of ancient grains (so called because they were eaten in ancient times) are catching on as shoppers look for something besides wheat, rice, white pasta and flour.

“Everyone is very educated, the young generation wants to try these grains, and ethnic food is very trendy right now,” Cammalleri says.

His assessment is borne out of Spins, a Chicago company that tracks natural, specialty and organic foods. In July, it reported torrid sales growth for ancient grains.

The fastest riser: packaged Kamut (the brand name for khorasan wheat), whose dollar sales grew at 686% in the year ended July 13. Next came spelt, a nutrient-laden cousin of wheat (up 363%) and freekeh, which is high in fibre and has a low glycemic index (up 159%).

On the gluten-free side, sales of amaranth (once an Aztec staple) were up 123%; and teff, an Ethiopian grain popular with celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, were up 58%. Add sales of cereals, crackers and other foods containing ancient grains and sales are set to soar.

For now, quinoa remains king of the hill in grocery aisles.

That’s partly because CPGs have already taken the quinoa trend mainstream by making it a star ingredient in snacks and other items. Quaker won a Product of the Year award this year for its Harvest Quinoa Granola bar.

And two quinoa-infused items were among the Top 10 most innovative products at Grocery Showcase West in Vancouver in April: quinoa baked goods from Wise Bites and quinoa powder from Organika.

Like Pusateri’s, Loblaw’s home meal replacement line is bursting with grains, and it’s mostly quinoa. It’s in everything from chili to quinoa-crusted halibut to quinoa fried rice. There’s even a quinoa oatmeal raisin cookie.

“We feature everything from farro to freekeh, but many customers go straight for our quinoa dishes since the grain has such a strong reputation,” says executive chef Mark Russell. To help drive interest, Loblaw relies on its nutritionists to provide information through direct consultations, store tours and cooking classes, says Russell.

Quinoa is also leading the pack at Country Grocer stores on Vancouver Island, with double-digit growth occurring in its bulk sections.

READ: Harvesting our heritage in heirloom, ancient grains

The stores carry royal Bolivian white quinoa, quinoa flakes and quinoa flour, says the grocer’s bulk buyer, Barry Waring.

Quinoa definitely rules for now, but experts predict several more ancient grains will likely soon catch on with shoppers’ tastes.

Take millet, for instance.

Sales of Bob’s Red Mill’s millet have tripled in the past three years. Helping to push this grain out of obscurity is its ease of use (it cooks in 20 to 30 minutes) and its mild corn-like flavour. Bay State Milling in Quincy, Mass., is seeing shoppers purchase millet as an ingredient in flour or as a top- ping for breads, says Colleen Zammer, the company’s director of marketing. Zammer is also bullish on amaranth. High in iron, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus, amaranth, like quinoa, is gluten-free. It has a spicy, peppery, earthy flavour and makes good flat- bread, Zammer says.

Another big opportunity lies in spelt flour, says Nicole Fetterly, nutritionist for Choices Markets in Delta, B.C. Though spelt does contain gluten, it’s often more tolerated than other types of flour, she says. Spelt has a sweet, nutty flavour, uses fewer fertilizers than other grains and is available in organic formats.

Also worth watching: farro, which is high in protein and fibre, antioxidants and phytonutrients. Cammalleri says farro is popular at Pusateri’s in dishes and salads, such as a grilled vegetable and farro salad with sautéed garlic and chilies. “It’s got a nice crunch, a nice pop and is very healthy,” says Cammalleri. So, why the surging interest in ancient grains?

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Several reasons. Certainly for some, like quinoa, it’s the gluten- free factor. But shoppers’ interest in foods that are less processed and naturally high in nutrients also can’t be ignored. According to a 2013 global survey by Datamonitor Consumer, 46% of consumers cite foods and beverages naturally high in nutrients as “very appealing.”

This compares with just 16% of consumers who feel products with added nutrients are “very appealing.” The desire for more protein and fibre is also driving interest. According to the International Food Information Council, 63% of consumers consider protein when buying foods and beverages and 60% take into account the fibre content.

Finally, shoppers today are more adventurous. Ancient grains help expand culinary repertoires, says Melissa Abbott, senior director of culinary insights at the Hartman Group.

Ancient grains are proving that the old adage “what goes around, comes around” is true. Even if it does take a couple thousand years.

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