Grains Research and Development

Date: 01.04.2005

Spelt - when old becomes new again

"Typically spelt is higher in protein than modern wheats, but the lysine level remains low (as with all wheats). There is considerable variation in protein content."

By Trish Griffiths, Accredited Practising Dietitian; Manager Nutrition Services, BRI Australia Pty Ltd

One of the world"s most ancient grains - spelt - is enjoying a revival. A popular health food in Europe, spelt is being "re-discovered" in emerging organic, speciality and health food markets in Australia.

Interest in spelt is largely based on the belief that it is higher in nutrients and has lower allergenic potential than traditional wheats. Scientific investigations, however, do not generally support these claims, except in the case of zinc, which can be at levels up to twice as high as in modern wheats.

Cereal grains have been an important food for humans for thousands of years, providing energy and a wide range of other essential nutrients. In general, ancient wheats such as spelt are similar in composition to modern wheats - high in carbohydrates, low in fat, with protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals.

Spelt is often marketed as a "wheat substitute", in the belief that it is gluten-free or that the gluten is more easily digested. Spelt is not gluten-free and is not suitable for people who have coeliac disease or any other form of gluten intolerance.

Typically spelt is higher in protein than modern wheats, but the lysine level remains low (as with all wheats). There is considerable variation in protein content with variety and environment.

Available data shows levels of essential vitamins and minerals in spelt to be comparable, but not unique, to modern wheat varieties.

Spelt may be higher in vitamin E activity.

The level of some micro-nutrients - copper, manganese, zinc and cobalt - can also be higher, as can the proportion of monounsaturated fats to the total fat content (this is likely to be of less nutritional significance since all wheats are low in fat). The content of total and insoluble dietary fibre has been reported to be considerably lower in spelt than modern wheats.

Ancient wheats such as spelt offer sensory and functional characteristics that could expand their use into a wide range of breakfast cereal, bakery, pastry and snack products.

Clearly this is a niche market that offers opportunities to growers, bakers and food producers. However, claims that spelt is nutritionally superior to traditional wheats should be treated with caution, since there is currently no strong evidence to support this.

The real potential may be not as a replacement for currently available grains but rather as a complement to them.

For more information about grains, nutrition and health visit the Go Grains website at www.gograins.com.au