I've been traveling for the past few weeks to promote my cookbook, Whole-Grain Mornings, and I have been really interested in the questions that have been coming up from audience members and students in my cooking classes. Some are about the book, others focus on what I really eat for breakfast, but more and more I'm getting questions about heritage grains and what they are, exactly. Are they really healthier and should we all be seeking them out?
I first started thinking about heritage grains a few years ago, but after I attended the Grain Gathering conference this past summer, I was deep into the subject. I toured the Bread Lab up at Washington State University where they're doing some really fascinating work with different varieties of wheat that are specifically local and that have strains of gluten that are tolerated by many who can't otherwise tolerate more mass-market wheat.
But let's back up a second. What are heritage grains in the first place?
Heritage grains are perhaps best understood when compared to their alternative, "mass market grains." Mass market grains, which make up most of the wheat we eat, are developed and grown for their resistance to disease and ability to produce higher yields. A great deal of wheat you see in the supermarket would fall under this category today.
Heritage grains and heritage wheat, on the other hand, are different: there are many ancient varieties of wheat that haven't been altered or hybridized to be more successful in our agricultural economy. These older strains of wheat and grains been gaining more and more attention as they're sometimes better tolerated than mass market wheats by many folks adversely affected by gluten. Also, the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers isn't as common (or avoided completely in many cases).
So is heritage wheat healthier? In terms of fiber and protein makeup, it's my understanding their nutritional composition doesn't differ too dramatically. But heritage grain advocates would likely tell you that eating non-hybridized wheat that has an actual origin and that hasn't been grown with a wide range of pesticides and fertilizers is always healthier.
For me, the pleasure is in the distinct strains and different tastes of grains grown in specific places. I love the idea of wheat as a local crop with micro-variations, much as we do tomatoes or corn at the farmers market.
More and more farmers are starting to grow their own wheat and build a local grain economy, and this is exciting because we can begin to get to know where our grains are coming from, the different varieties, and who is actually growing them.
Learn More: There is an organization called Community Grains in the California Bay Area that is doing really great work in educating the public on heritage and ancient grains (plus, they are making a really killer polenta right now), so you can read more about their mission there. In addition, the Heritage Seed Conservancy as some good information on their website.