Heirloom and Perennial Grains Are Trending—Here’s Why
What are heirloom and perennial grains?
Perennial grains are pretty straightforward to define. Perennial plants, including grains, mean that they regrow year after year without needing to be replanted. This enables their root systems to grow far deeper into the earth than an annual plant that needs to continually be replanted.
A general go-to is that heirloom grains encompass grains that have not been adulterated or genetically modified in any way.
Heirloom grains, on the other hand, have varying definitions depending on who you ask. Some equate them to ancient grains, while others feel there’s a distinct difference. Ancient grains refer to grains that originated in indigenous cultures and have been grown the same way for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, like amaranth, sorghum, and pseudo grain (though actually a seed) quinoa. While heirloom or heritage grains, to some people, indicate indigenous grains that were brought to the West by immigrants. These grains will also be grown using the same centuries-old techniques. Some examples include farro, triticale, einkorn wheat, and kamut or Khorasan wheat. Many ancient grains will also heirloom grains but ultimately, there’s no official definition of these terms. A general go-to is that heirloom grains encompass grains that have not been adulterated or genetically modified in any way.
In this country, these grains date back to before the Green Revolution, explains Eric Skokan, owner and farmer at Black Cat Farm in Boulder, Colorado. The Green Revolution was a time when grain production skyrocketed and farmers started to engage in selective breeding. This breeding was aimed at “decreasing the stature of the grains so that the plant put the vast majority of its energy into seed production,” says Skokan. This would yield more harvestable grain, perfect for its future in subsidized commodity crop farming. He paints a lovely picture of what grains looked like pre-revolution, “when we, as Americans, envision fields of grain being roughly waist to chest high, golden and weaving…we’re thinking of heirloom grains.”
Health benefits of heirloom and perennial grains
One way these grains set themselves multiple steps above the conventionally raised grains pervasive in our food supply today, is the nutrition they offer. Among the dozens of various heirloom and perennial grains available to us, the nutrition will vary slightly, but generally you can expect these grains to offer vitamins and minerals like B vitamins, iron, magnesium, selenium, phosphorus, copper, and zinc. They’ll also deliver serious amounts of fiber, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and plant compounds. These nutrients combine to offer us sustained energy, strong bones, optimal tissue growth and repair, improved heart health, and boosted immune function.
While the wheat we’re used to generally can offer many of these same nutrients, much of it is stripped away in refinement and processing. Refined wheat flour, for example, has the outer two layers of the grain removed. These layers are the bran and germ—where you’ll find the majority of the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and plant compounds. This process yields a shelf stable product, but offers very little nutrition.
Even in the case of whole wheat flour you’d buy at the grocery store, much of it has been heat treated or processed in some other way to yield a shelf stable product. Yes, you read that right, freshly milled whole wheat flour is NOT shelf stable. The germ in whole grain wheat contains oil that will go rancid if not kept in the refrigerator or freezer. The processing required for whole wheat flour to be able to sit on grocery store shelves for months and months can reduce the micronutrient and antioxidant content—and thus its overall nutritional benefits.
Perennial and heirloom grains obtain their rich nutrition mainly through their lack of processing but also their deep root systems. Perennial grains, in particular, are going to have extensive root systems, especially if they’ve been in the ground for multiple years, offering up to seven times the amount of root structures when compared to annual crops. This allows them to extract more nutrients from the soil, creating a healthier final product.
Heirloom grains, though planted annually, also have much more intricate root systems than the conventional grain plants that we see today that are bred to be much shorter in stature. This is because, “whatever you have above the ground, you have an equal amount of growth below ground,” explained Skokan, referencing a plant’s root systems.
Sustainability potential of heirloom and perennial grains
When it comes to sustainability, these grains also shine, mainly due to their ability to positively influence soil health. When grain is harvested, what often happens is the remaining plant and its roots are either left in the field to decompose or are tilled back into the soil as is or in the form of compost—this introduces what’s called organic (or living) matter into the soil. Organic matter in soil directly influences its productivity and ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide. Fun fact: Soil is one the major carbon sinks on our precious Mother Earth. Skokan expands a little further, “we are at 50 percent of the soil organic matter that our great grandparents farmed with. All of that organic matter is carbon, and all of that carbon is now in the atmosphere instead of being in the ground.” This is an obvious problem when looking at the climate issues that we face as a global community.
But here’s where perennial and heirloom grains present an exciting opportunity. As we already know, these grains grow deeper root systems while also offering more plant matter above ground to help boost soil's organic matter and store carbon in the ground. These deep root systems equate to increased drought resistance as they can find water deeper in the ground.
This all translates to these incredible grains having the potential to not only improve soil health and sequester carbon, but also provide food security in a changing climate with less predictable weather and precipitation.
Including heirloom and perennial grains in your diet
So, with all this exciting information on heirloom and perennial grains, where can you find them and what are the best ways to include them in your diet?
Heirloom grains are becoming much more mainstream, and you can usually find at least one variety in most grocery stores. Some common types include farro, spelt, sorghum, amaranth, millet, and quinoa. If you have access to local farmers growing more niche heirloom wheat varieties like sonora, turkey red, or blue emmer, you should also totally give those a try.
Perennial grains are a bit harder to come by. Kernza is the first commercially available perennial wheat, and you can now find products made with it on Amazon and in Whole Foods. Though, expect to see more and more perennial grain options in the coming years as Whole Foods named them a top 10 food trend in 2022.
Once you have your hands on either heirloom or perennial grains, one key concept when it comes to wheat products is fermentation. Fermentation is the digestive process carried out by microorganisms like bacteria and yeast, in this case typically introduced by way of sourdough starter, to create a desirable change in food. When it comes to fermentation in wheat products, these organisms start to break down the gluten molecules that are the culprit of so many stomach complaints. This yields a more digestible product for us as well as the delicious, tangy flavor sourdough is known for.
From nutrition to sustainability, perennial and heirloom grains are impressive on so many fronts, more than justifying their increasing trendiness. Whether you’ve been enjoying some of the classics like farro or quinoa for years or are new to this wide world of grains, trying your hand at some of the newer and more niche varieties is not only fun, but can also help improve both your health and the health of the planet.
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