Which ancient grains are gaining the most traction in the US food & beverage market?

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

The gluten-free ancient grain amaranth (Picture: Istockphoto: bhfack2)
The gluten-free ancient grain amaranth (Picture: Istockphoto: bhfack2)

Related tags Ancient grains Cereal Nutrition Wheat

Ancient grains continue to gain traction in the US food retail and foodservice market, with quinoa leading the pack. However, lesser-known grains such as teff, amaranth and freekeh are starting to picking up some steam as well, according to a new report* from Packaged Facts.

Ancient grains is a loosely-defined** category covering grains, pseudo-grains and seeds that are ‘ancient’ in the sense that they have remained largely unchanged over hundreds, even thousands, of years unlike, say, modern wheat varieties.

According to SPINS Trendwatch data in the Packaged Facts report, “dollar sales growth of specific ancient grains for the 52 weeks ending July 13, 2014 was +686% for Kamut, +363% for spelt, +159% for freekeh, +123% for amaranth, +58% for teff, +39% for farro and +35% for quinoa.”

A 'bundle of benefits'

High in fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals, many ancient grains also come with a great backstory, a wholesome, whole grain image and in several cases, gluten-free credentials, so are seen as key weapons in the battle against carb-bashing books such as Grain Brain and Wheat Belly, and dietary regimes such as the Paleo Diet, says Packaged Facts.

“Ancient grains play an important role in many of today’s leading food trends including whole grains, gluten-free, non-GMO and bio-diversity, natural, organic, high fiber, high protein and vegan diets.  For some consumers, the attraction of ancient grains is the bundle of benefits that manifests as simplicity, resulting from not being grown or processed on a large scale, meaning they are more likely to be organic, produced naturally without any genetic modification, offering considerable nutritional value.” 

Quinoa continues to be the ancient grain most purchased by U.S. adults, says the report: “Despite recent speculation, quinoa fatigue has not set in... its popularity continues to spread across the supermarket as it finds its way into a growing number of product categories that include everything from beverages to chocolate bars.”

Gluten-free ancient grains:​ Amaranth, buckwheat, kaniwa, quinoa, wild rice, millet, teff, sorghum, chia

Ancient grains (containing gluten):​ Barley, spelt, einkorn, farro, kamut

Packaged foods

In terms of packaged foods, ancient grains have become more widely available at mainstream and natural food retailers, and are now found in a growing number of food and beverage products and categories, says the report.

“Some of the grains themselves and flours made from them are being marketed alongside standard flour, corn meal and other specialty flours in the baking aisle.  They can also be found in the rice aisle packaged and sold for use as side dishes and recipe use.”

Packaged Facts anticipates that consumer awareness of kaniwa​[also known as 'baby quinoa', it has 15-19% protein] will grow as more chefs experiment with it for variety. ​[However] based on its higher cost and more limited supply, in the near term its use in formulated retail products can be expected to be limited to premium, organic and limited time offerings.


As for foodservice outlets, ‘Ancient Grains’, ‘Whole Grains in Kids’ Meals’ and ‘Gluten-Free’ were among the top 20 trends noted in the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot in 2015​ survey of 1,300 chefs, with top trends among starches and side items listed as: Non-wheat Noodles and Pasta (#1), Ancient Grains (#2) and Quinoa (#3).

Greenwheat freekeh veggie burgers
One of the most interesting ‘ancient grains’ to watch is freekeh - wheat that has been harvested early while it is still green and then roasted and cracked. Freekeh (pronounced free-ka) works well in everything from hot cereals to soups, salads, stuffing and curries, as it’s nutty and chewy. However, a big opportunity is in veggie burgers, meat-free-balls, tacos and other savory dishes because it has a meaty density and mouthfeel and imparts a strong umami, earthy, mushroom-like flavor.

Sharing the limelight with ancient grains for consumer attention are sprouted grains​, seeds and nuts, promising ease of digestibility and enhanced nutritional value in terms of protein, amino acids and micronutrients, adds Packaged Facts.

Ancient grain application trends from Label Insight

To get a deeper insight into what kinds of packaged foods ancient grains are featuring in, we consulted Label Insight​ - which has collected data on 165,000+ products on US grocery store shelves, including private label products – and records multiple attributes, from nutrient content claims (good source of fiber), marketing claims (all-natural), and certifications (GFCO certified gluten-free), to ingredients (chia, spelt, citric acid). 

A simple search to see how many products the grains appear in revealed quinoa is leading the pack at 851 products, followed by chia (531), millet (486), buckwheat (394), sorghum (330), amaranth (283), spelt (120), teff (67), farro (12) and einkorn (10).

Teff​: Teff is gluten-free, high in iron, protein, calcium and resistant starch, and an excellent source of vitamin C – which is unusual for grains. It can be cooked in porridge, added to baked goods or made into polenta.

TEFF applications, US packaged foods, retail. Source: Label Insight

Amaranth​: ​Gluten-free psuedo-cereal amaranth was a staple food of the Aztecs, and with a protein content of about 13-14%, it "easily trumps the protein content of most other grains"​ according to the Whole Grains Council. Amaranth has a peppery taste and is high in the amino acid lysine.

AMARANTH applications, US packaged foods, retail. Source: Label Insight

Buckwheat​:​ High in soluble fiber and zinc, copper and potassium, buckwheat has a nutty flavor and works well in hot and cold cereals, granola bars and meat-free entrees.

BUCKWHEAT applications, US packaged foods, retail. Source: Label Insight

Chia:​ Rich in protein, fiber, calcium, phosphorus and potassium, chia seeds also contain short-chain omega-3 fatty acids, and are appearing in everything from yogurt and hot cereal to snack bars. 

chia ingredients
CHIA applications, US packaged foods, retail. Source: Label Insight

Quinoa​: An edible seed, quinoa is gluten-free and high in protein (c.14% by dry weight) and potassium. White varieties offer a buttery, creamy flavor; red have a nutty flavor; and black varieties taste more earthy, and mineral-like.

quinoa ingredients
QUINOA applications, US packaged foods, retail. Source: Label Insight

Millet​: A gluten-free grain rich in protein and magnesium, millet can be used in its whole form, or ground and used as flour.  

MILLET applications, US packaged foods, retail. Source: Label Insight


Sorghum​: While most of this gluten-free crop goes into animal feed and ethanol, it’s starting to gain momentum in packaged foods as it lacks an inedible hull and is a good or excellent source of iron, phosphorus, potassium and zinc, and a good source of B vitamins.

sorghum ingredients
SORGHUM applications, US packaged foods, retail. Source: Label Insight

Spelt​: A high-protein wheat variety, spelt works well in noodles, bagels, tortillas and breads. Compared to regular wheat, spelt is higher in protein, insoluble fiber, vitamin B3, magnesium, and manganese.

Products using spelt ingredients
SPELT applications, US packaged foods, retail. Source: Label Insight

Farro​: An ancient variety of wheat, farro has a nutty flavor and chewy texture, making it ideal for entrees and side dishes.

FARRO applications, US packaged foods, retail. Source: Label Insight

Kamut​:  Khorasan wheat sold under the brand name Kamut has a buttery flavor and works well in everything from cereal and bread to snacks and baby food.

kamut ingredients
KAMUT applications, US packaged foods, retail. Source: Label Insight

Freekeh (pronounced free-ka)​: Wheat harvested when it’s still young and green, freekeh has a toothier texture than farro but is softer than barley, and also packs a powerful nutritional punch, as it’s high in protein, fiber and resistant starch, as well as vitamins and minerals.

Einkorn: ​A type of wheat, einkorn is high in protein.

EINKORN applications, US packaged foods, retail. Source: Label Insight

*Click here​ to find out more about the report, Food Formulation Trends: Ancient Grains and Sprouted Ingredients​. 

**Click HERE​ to see how the Whole Grains Council defines ancient grains. 

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