What’s the Deal With Ancient Grains?
This past holiday season, General Mills gave millenials something to be cheerful about. They announced that starting early in 2015, consumers could once again buy French Toast Crunch, the sugar cereal they retired from shelves in 2005. 90’s-born consumers rejoiced in the manner they know best: a torrent of social media posts. Many of the tweets and posts bathed in the nostalgia of the moment, praising the announcement as the ultimate #tbt. Buried in the same press release, General Mills also unveiled a new cereal: Cheerios with Ancient Grains. The cereal features the traditional “o’s” alongside oats, spelt, quinoa, and puffed kamut. Though the cereal is brand new, “Ancient Grains” in some ways represents a bigger throwback than French Toast Crunch. It invokes an even older, more mysterious past.
Though “ancient” hardly seems like a toothsome adjective, it’s cropping up in a lot of campaigns. So-called “ancient” grains have long guest-starred in a lot of health food products. If anything, the fact that General Mills picked up on the trend is a sign that this has entered mainstream culture, rather than fringe foodie movements. A 2014 BBC article entitled “Why Do Americans Love Ancient Grains?” suggests that this phenomenon is uniquely American. The author bitingly asks, “Would you like to taste the health-giving grain found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun? Or feast on the unprocessed kernels said to have been stored on the ark by Noah? Or how about a vodka made from traditionally farmed Bolivian quinoa?” The implied answer here is a resounding “no.” So what is it about ancient grains that seems so appealing?
Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutritional strategies at the Whole Grain Council, suggests that it's nothing more than "a revolt against processed food. It's the opposite of modern." However, its appeal seems to be strictly a selling point, with little substance behind it. "Ancient grains is nothing more than a marketing label," CEO of Fooducate Hemi Weingarten told the BBC. "Like any grain they can be used in a healthy or unhealthy way." Though they differ from modern grains in that they aren't heavily refined, this does not prevent them from being further processed between when they sprout and reach, say, your cereal bowl.
Senegalese chef and Lake Isle author Pierre Thiam argues that not all ancient grains are created equal, and should certainly not be dismissed. Though they may be lumped together, there are important distinctions in their nutritional value and environmental impact. “Fonio is important for two reasons. Nutritionally, it's a seed that has a lot of advantages in that it is extremely rich in protein and is gluten-free. Moreover, fonio grows in arid conditions and matures in two months. Consequently, it's a seed that could offer solutions to hunger in the world.” This is quite different from quinoa, the darling of the health-food world that has recently come under fire for harming the ecology and economy where it grows.
Pierre regularly promotes fonio for its health and ecological benefits. "On a purely culinary, fonio has the advantage of being a delicious and versatile grain that can adapt to all styles of cuisine and replace any other seed. On the social level, to promote this seed has for me the utmost importance because it may allow the communities that grow to be self-sufficient . Finally, the satisfaction of contributing to the preservation of one of the oldest seed grown in the world; fonio is indeed used for over 5000 years to ancient Egypt. According to the mythology of the Dogon of Mali, fonio is the seed of the universe. So in terms of biological diversity as culturally fonio is very important to preserve seed.” Many of Pierre's favorite Senegalese dishes feature fonio. If you don't believe his statements about how delicious fonio is, the food certainly speaks for itself.
You can find recipes for fonio in Thiam's book, Yolele!