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Ancient Wheats and New Perspective

Wheat has been used as a food grain since the last Stone Age. It can be considered the oldest domesticated crop grown for food - dating from 8,000-10,000 B.C. In fact, the ancient civilizations such as Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Cretan and Roman were highly dependent on wheat and barley as the principal food. Einkorn, Emmer, Khorasan/Kamut and Spelt are among the earliest cultivated wheats and commonly are referred to as “ancient wheats.” Except for Khorasan/Kamut, each of these wheat crops produces hulled or covered grains at harvest, i.e., intact spikelets in which the glumes remain adhered to the grain. The attached hulls may provide physical protection to the grains during planting, handling and storage. The hulls can serve easily as animal feed or in some industrial applications, but need to be removed for human food products. Cultivation of ancient wheats has survived on a limited scale in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Poland. During the past two decades the conservation and green movements in Europe have promoted cultivation of ancient wheats to preserve genetic resources.


At present most of the wheats grown are hybrids which have been created from “ancient wheats” over the past 100 to 150 years. The process of domestication and breeding of the ancient grains may have produced varieties of wheat with particular characters, i.e, high yielding and better disease resistance. However, these hybrids may lack some of the other unique properties of the ancestral wheats. The plant characteristics of these ancestral wheats and related species are conditioned by genes on sets of seven chromosomes. Multiple sets of these origin seven chromosomes produce new hybrids. The wild 14 chromosome species were first domesticated and later evolved into modern wheats. For example, einkorn is a diploid wheat containing 14 chromosome. Emmer and Kamut/Khorasan (durum relative) are tetraploid wheats having 28 chromosome, and spelt (bread wheat ancestor) is a hexaploid wheat with 42 chromosome.

Trends in organic agriculture and consumption of health food products have led to renewed interest in hulled wheat species. Spelt, for example, is found to perform well in low input systems and holds promise for the organic grain food market. In addition, it is believed that spelt wheat products are more tolerable and therapeutic than common wheat products as suggested by consumer testimonials. Ancient wheats also were used in alternative and folk medicine for the treatment of a wide range of health conditions such as ulcerous colitis, elevated serum cholesterol, hypertesion, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, depression and cancer. Current Canadian Research is evaluating organic spelt and other ancient wheat food products to learn more about their nutritional and health benefits.

The relationship between diet and health has become well documented. Some of the ancient wheats have a unique composition of secondary components or minor compounds such as carotenoids which may have potential as functional food ingredients. For instance, einkorn was found to contain significantly high level of lutein compared to other wheat species. Lutein is the major yellow pigment in wheat grains, and the elevated level of lutein in einkorn wheat may pave the way for the development of function wheat market. Lutein is found to reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts and provides protection against heart disease and cancer. In North America, the daily intake of lutein (1.5-2.0 mg) is below the suggested level (6 mg) and is declining due to a decrease in the consumption of the dark green vegetables, the main source of lutein. This indicates a need for the development of other dietary lutein diets.

In general, ancient wheats represent a rich source of genetic diversity for improvement of agronomic and grain characteristics of modern pasta and bread wheats. These species also may offer unique nutritional, sensory and functional properties that could expand their uses into a wide range of regular and speciality food products such as organic foods, functional foods, multi-grain foods, nutty flavoured wheat foods, etc. Research is needed to explore more about nutritional and health properties of ancient grains.

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Dr. Elsayed Abdel-Aal is a Research Scientist who obtained his B.Sc. in Food Science and Technology and M.Sc. in Legume and Cereal Proteins from the University of Alexandria, Egypt. He received his Ph.D. in Grain Chemistry and Processing from a joint program between University of Saskatchewan and University of Alexandria. Before joining AAFC, Dr. Abdelaal was a Research Scientist with Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan responsible for research into quality and value-added processing for ancient and newly developed cereal grains such as spelt, emmer, einkorn, khorasan, waxy wheat, blue wheat, canary seed, etc.

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