The terms ancient, heirloom and heritage grains (ancient grains) are used interchangeably by consumers and marketers to describe minor cereal grains and pseudo cereal grains that have not been adopted into American staple diets such as wheat, rice, and corn.

There is no scientific definition or regulatory standard for ancient grains. Historically, they were consumed by Indigenous peoples and have gained popularity in local food movements due to perceived improved nutritional and flavor profiles, according to Ardent Mills.

Most consumers in a survey from Denver-based Ardent Mills survey expressed interest in buying an item containing ancient grains, and nearly 90% said they wanted to know more about ancient grains.

The survey found 63% of respondents said they either were very familiar with ancient grains or had heard of them. Sixty-one percent said they definitely or probably would purchase an item with ancient grains from a grocer. The percentages were higher for consumers of the ages 18 to 34 at 65% and 35 to 52 at 64%. While 85% said they were interested in the nutritional benefits of ancient grains, 82% said they were interested in functional benefits.

“Consumers, as savvy as they are becoming and as resources become available to them and they use (the resources) more often, there is still a little bit of gap in their understanding,” said Matthew Schueller, director of marketing insights and analytics for Ardent Mills. “It doesn’t undermine their appreciation, but one of the things that kind of caught me by surprise was not what consumers didn’t know but what they do know. That was specifically within the questions we asked about nutritional values.”

Quinoa remains the most popular ancient grain. While 86% of respondents said they were familiar with quinoa, 40% said they were very familiar. Consumers of the ages 35 to 54 had the highest familiarity of quinoa at 91%.

“When it first came into the marketplace, it had a lot of stickiness and a lot of traction because consumers struggled with how to pronounce it,” Schueller said. “I think in some way it made it sort of sticky to the point where it gave the grain an opportunity to stay on the radar of consumers until they were able to experience it.”

Schueller mentioned buckwheat, sorghum and millet as ancient grains emerging in the marketplace. Eighty-nine percent of respondents said they were familiar with buckwheat with 27% saying they were very familiar.

“Buckwheat has relatively solid awareness among consumers, and I think they realize that they come across buckwheat in a number of different formats in the marketplace.”

Bread revolution

Supermarket bakeries continue to evolve and place a greater emphasis on premium fresh bakery products, including ancient grain and artisan breads.

Evolving with the local communities it serves, Gelson’s recently relaunched its Gelson’s Encino store, featuring a remodeled Wolfgang Puck and Viktor Benes departments. The grand reopening features various bakery samples.

Celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2021, Gelson’s operates 27 full-service specialty food stores in Southern California. Each Gelson’s Market features the full amenities of a traditional supermarket, with the local flavor of a neighborhood market. Gelson’s in-house experts know Southern California’s lifestyle and are driven to find only the best foods and exclusive finds for their customers. Gelson’s is particularly known for flavorful, hand-selected breads and other fresh foods.

In Kansas City, nutrition and flavor are of utmost importance to Farm to Market bread bakers. That’s why this beloved local bakery never uses preservatives or artificial ingredients when creating the artisan breads that have become a fixture in the Hen House bakery. Balls Food Stores is a third-generation family-owned company that operates 27 retail grocery stores in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area, primarily under the Price Chopper and Hen House banners.

Since 1989, La Brea Bakery has focused on crafting true artisan bread with its original recipe, high quality ingredients and dedication to the artisan process. Based in Los Angeles, the brand has revolutionized the modern artisan bread movement and won over the culinary community and consumers with its hearth-baked, handcrafted breads sold at online retailers and grocery stores across the country.

Chef Jon Davis, culinary innovation leader at Aspire Bakeries, points out that La Brea Bakery’s seasonal Cranberry Walnut Loaf is such a classic flavor combination, and the wheat and rye flour give the bread a lot of complexity. It really goes well with sandwiches and everything.

“Our customers keep coming back to it,” Davis said. “With our Holiday Savory Rolls, we looked at portion sizes and wanted to bring the best experience of flavor and shape that goes together in a smaller format. It is a great classic for small portion sandwiches and for snacking. We are doing a lot more marketing like that to drive sales. Smaller stores offer an opportunity. For small independents to drive demand, they can bring in these items as Limited Time Offers (LTOs). We have visual packaging that really stands out from the rest.”

The goal is not to get lost in a sea of brown. That’s why unique packaging that communicates real benefits to the shopper is so appealing. Plus, there are cross-merchandising opportunities.

“One SKU can go in the bakery department,” Davis said, “and also one can go in a cheese basket.”

As for other products from La Brea, the company recently announced its newest everyday artisan bread: cinnamon raisin. Studded with raisins and pockets of sweet cinnamon, La Brea Bakery’s Cinnamon Raisin Loaf launched at Kroger stores.

The Cinnamon Raisin Loaf complements both sweet and savory flavors, pairing well with white cheddar and Brie cheeses, chardonnay, and Belgian-style ales. It was developed through a Kroger-La Brea Bakery partnership, which identified a gap in the in-store bakery category.

“As a classic bakery favorite, cinnamon raisin bread is versatile and continues to grow in popularity, but you don’t see it in the in-store bakery fresh artisan bread offerings,” said Christy Benken, Kroger category manager, Bakery – Bread and Rolls. “This delicious new loaf fills an unmet consumer need.”

Plant-based options

Plant-based foods, increased interest in sustainable foods and practices, and the return of popular classics highlight potential new trends in 2023, according to a new report from Whole Foods Market. As plant-based diets continue to grow in popularity, operators can trust that La Brea Bakery sandwich carriers (with the exception of Brioche buns and multigrain sliced sandwich bread) are free of all animal products, such as honey or cheese.

Whole Foods has high expectations for some emerging ingredients, with yaupon taking its top spot. As North America’s only native caffeinated plant, the holly bush ingredient is becoming increasingly popular for its earthy tones and energy benefits.

Increased consumption of milk alternatives is creating opportunities for upcycled byproducts in the baking industry, the company’s No. 2 trend. Whole Foods expects to see an increase in the use of oat, soy and almond pulp in a variety of applications, including alternative flours, mixes and confectioneries.