Beyond grain free: ancient grains of wheat in dog and cat diets

Ancient varieties of wheat as a novel grain

Ancient Grains 1706 Pe Tingred

In April 2017 in “Ingredient Issues,” the topic was a broad-brush overview of carbohydrate sources that we could consider for the next generation of pet food products when we finally exhaust the options that are “grain-free.” While the typical commodity grains have been the staple to pet food for decades and the legume seeds and tubers have been the popular marketing catchphrase, the next group might be the “ancient grains.” The connotation of this group is that these are “heirloom” or “heritage” grains. But what constitutes this group, which grains fit into it and what attributes might they afford a modern pet food manufacturer?

What are ancient grains?

The term “ancient grains” is not specifically defined by any regulatory agency or trade group. Rather, it is generally understood by producers, academics and merchants to represent a group of seeds that are little changed over time. For whatever reason, they were overlooked during the green revolution for lacking traits that could be exploited for increased production, being difficult to breed or lacking consistent traits that were considered beneficial at the time. Today they represent a treasure trove of genetic diversity — an archive of sorts that plant breeders can access as they confront changes in climate, growing conditions, pests, weeds and people’s tastes.

They are, in essence, the same now as they were 5,000 or 10,000 years ago. Being overlooked for so long may mean they have something new to offer our current health, nutrition and sensory needs. Some of these have been covered in this column already including millet, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and rye. Another group that may be worth exploring is in the Triticae tribe — the ancient wheats. There are several that are still produced today that are finding new audiences, including Einkorn, Emmer (Farro), Kamut (Khorasan) and Spelt. Even if these were only used for their name, it might provide a unique angle to the novel ingredients category.

Einkorn is the most ancient form of wheat; it was intentionally cultivated in 7500 BC (Neolithic, Paleolithic era). Genetically, it is a “diploid” plant which simply means it is a simpler genetic composition than today’s tetraploid wheats. It is more of a grass and fits in the category of “hulled” grains. In other words, an outer layer or hull surrounds the seed and must be removed before milling. This permits the seed to be a bit more resilient to pest and environmental challenges. Some research reviews would suggest that the seed is higher in protein, functional fiber, carotenoids and minerals than modern wheat. Einkorn is less productive and thus less commonly cultivated. It is more suitable for harsh environments and poor soils with production in small holdings in France, India, Italy and Turkey.

Another ancient wheat is Emmer, and like Einkorn, it is also a diploid hulled variety. Emmer is grown in the highlands of the north in Ethiopia, in India, Italy, Turkey and Iran. Emmer, also known as Farro by some, is higher in plant sterols than common wheat. It supposedly provided the base genetics along with hybridization with goatgrass to become the basis for today’s common wheat. It is also similar to Einkorn in nutrient composition.

Kamut is a tetraploid hulled wheat also known as Khorasan wheat. This ancient Egyptian variety is well adapted to low agronomic inputs like fertilizer and chemicals. It is grown in the warmer climates along the Mediterranean in central Asia and the northern Middle East. Kamut is a “naked” grain (no hull), making it easier to thresh with modern equipment. It is reported to have a slightly sweeter taste and contain appreciable levels of lutein, the yellow-orange carotenoid associated with immune and eye health.

Spelt is a hexaploid variety similar to modern wheat. It is also a hulled variety that is grown in mountainous regions of southern Europe. Spelt has many properties similar to common wheat and has been used by pet food producers in Europe for many years as an alternative to wheat.

Ancient wheats may contain a higher concentration of resistant starch. They represent a wider genetic variety and a potential to serve as genetic seed stock for new varieties of wheat and/or hardy stock that requires less agronomic inputs — the latter of which might provide greater crop sustainability if weather patterns change.

Ancient grains in pet food

For consideration in pet food, the processing is similar to that of existing systems for handling grains. Their use could expand taste, nutritional enhancement and marketing opportunities as consumers continue to explore new options for themselves and their pets. There is effectively no research with these grains specifically targeted to pet food in the modern literature. However, their nutritional and processing properties have been relatively well explored for human foods and nutrition. Since they are the progenitor species to modern wheat, their incorporation into pet foods is not too much of a stretch. The bigger question will be availability and development of a consistent supply, and then addressing the acceptance in pet foods by pet owners desiring an “ancient” difference.

On October 10–12, 2017, we will be exploring some of these options at the K-State (Kansas State University) R&D Showcase in Manhattan, Kansas, USA, at an event entitled “Going with the Grain.” We hope you will have a chance to come and liven the debate with your imagination and insights.


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