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Ancient grains like Spelt, Emmer, and Einkorn are making a comeback, but are they better for you than modern wheats? The answer is, as usual, not a simple 'yes' or 'no'.

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Wheat is a member of the grass family, and if you like bread, cake, or crackers (at least the kind with wheat in them), then you're already a fan. We use about 550 million metric tons of the stuff a year.

And these days, farmers and researchers are noticing a rising demand for the return of different kinds of wheat, partly because specialty foods are becoming more popular and also because they'd make our crops more diverse.

Specifically, people are interested in hulled wheat, which is similar to the kinds of wheat that were grown in ancient times, like spelt, emmer, and einkorn.

Which is why, on January 13th, a research team based out of the University of Hohenheim in Germany published a study comparing the nutritional value of these ancient grains to the bread and durum wheats that most people eat today.

And it turns out that if we want to start producing more of those older kinds of wheat, we'll probably need to develop them a bit.

Hulled wheats are the ancestors of modern wheats, but there's at least one big difference: the grains of hulled wheats are encased in a hard hull.

The hull is made from glumes, tough chaff that protects the grains. It's almost like the shell of a nut, but it's also really hard to get off.

Modern-bred and durum wheats, on the other hand, are free-threshing wheats, meaning that when you harvest them, the grain separates from all the un-useful stuff pretty easily (whereas the hulled spikelets of spelt, emmer, and einkorn need to be dried, heated, or milled before you can break open the hulls and get at the good stuff.)

So it's not hard to see why we switched. Hulled wheat is just more work.

But those hulls also protect the grain from fungus and diseases, and hulled wheat can grow in less than hospitable climates, especially colder and less fertile mountain regions where modern wheat can struggle.

Plus, if some wheat-destroying super disease ever wipes out all of our modern wheat crops, it would be nice to have a back-up plan or two.

So to get the best possible data on these older wheats compared to the newer ones, the team conducted field trials at four different locations in Germany by growing 75 different varieties of wheat in each place. There were 15 varieties of each of the five main types of wheat.

Maybe unsurprisingly, the wheat varieties we use today outperformed their ancient counterparts in pretty much every way.

Grain yield, or how much food we got out of each plot, was significantly higher for modern wheats. The yields for spelt, emmer, and einkorn were 37, 52, and 65% lower, respectively.

The hulled wheats also grew about 30 centimeters taller, which is not good. Taller wheat doesn't mean more grain because the grain only grows on the top, but taller wheat runs a much higher risk of breaking in a strong wing, and the bent stalks are much more difficult to harvest.

And that higher growth was after reducing the amount of nitrogen-rich fertilizer given to the hulled wheats (nitrogen-right fertilizer being what makes grass plants grow even taller).

But how good is the grain they did get?

Quality of wheat grain is partly determined by its protein content. Nitrogen-rich fertilizers improve the plant's protein yield, so it's hard to compare the ancient wheats with the modern wheats directly since they didn't receive the same amounts.

But even with less fertilizer, the ancient wheat actually contained more protein than our modern wheat.

But not so fast, because not all protein is created equal. Modern wheat has been bred to produce extremely high-quality protein.

But protein in the hulled wheats didn't contain nearly as much gluten, which is the stuff that gives you all that energy after biting off a hunk of bread.

That said, alternative baking methods and more refined methods of farming might improve the nutritional yield of hulled wheats.

So. Are hulled wheats better than modern wheats? ...Not really, but that isn't too surprising. I mean, we switched to modern wheat for a reason.

But, more options for delicious bread are nice, and it's likely that we'll get better grain results with more practice. Selective breeding could some day give us shorter plants with better protein and higher grain yield.

So it's probably worth developing these ancient grains so we can bring them back on a larger scale.

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