Modern world market looms large for ancient wheat product

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Close-up of freekah grains

An innovative green wheat product grown and produced in Australia is gaining a strong foothold in overseas functional food markets, but its innovator says a lack of local investor support to aid expansion could force him to take the business to North America or Europe

After years of research, South Australian company Greenwheat Freekeh™ is the first and only manufacturer in the world to develop a technology to harvest and treat soft green wheat to produce freekeh (pronounced ‘free-ka’), a cereal food popular in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries where it is hand-made.

Managing director Tony Lutfi says the hard work is finally paying off, with Greenwheat Freekeh™ emerging as a tasty alternative for consumers wishing to replace rice and pasta as a result of CSIRO studies confirming its high nutritional value. It has also received several high-profile celebrity endorsements.

Demand from the US soared in 2011 after Oprah Winfrey nominated freekeh as “one of four exotic grains that can improve health” and television host Dr Mehmet Oz listed the grain in the ‘7 Essentials for Women over 40’ episode of his program. UK chef Jamie Oliver has also touted freekeh as a ‘superfood’, triggering even more interest by health-food bloggers.

While the grain may still be foreign to many, Mr Lutfi says the freekeh market is far from niche, with annual consumption in the Middle East alone exceeding 500,000 tonnes.

He says Greenwheat Freekeh™ has the capacity to produce 800t of freekeh a year at its Two Wells site just north of Adelaide. It currently produces about 500t and exports 97 per cent of its output.

Freekeh is not a grain variety; it is wheat harvested while the grain is still green, which then undergoes a roasting process to produce a nutritious cereal product.

Close-up of man holding box of Freekeh

Greenwheat Freekeh™ managing director Tony Lutfi
says the products that can be made from freekeh
are many and the advantages for farmers and the
environment are significant. But without help to take
the company to the next level, it will be forced to sell
out overseas.

The product sells in the Middle East and parts of Europe, but the US is the company’s largest market, where Mr Lutfi says the obesity epidemic is motivating an increasing number of Americans to shun rice and pasta in favour of nutritious grains such as freekeh, quinoa, chia and farro. He says the trend is being propagated by a developing movement of growers, scientists and ‘foodies’ working to bring back ancient grain products that existed before grains were hybridised to boost important commercial traits such as yield, gluten content and disease resistance.

“Because it is harvested while the wheat is still young, freekeh contains more protein, vitamins and minerals than mature wheat and most other grains,” Mr Lutfi says. “It also falls in the low glycaemic index category and contains up to four times the fibre of brown rice with the same low fat content.” The claims are backed by studies undertaken by CSIRO and the Australian Government Analytical Laboratories.

The company’s cracked and wholegrain freekeh staples can be cooked like rice as a savoury side dish, used in soups, salads and poultry stuffings, or served as a breakfast cereal.

Greenwheat Freekeh™ is also developing and co-producing a range of retail products including pre-cooked meals, burgers, crackers, biscuits, salads, soups, pastas, flour, rolled freekeh and health bars.

The company’s manufacturing clients include a US company developing ready-to-eat cooked meals, burgers, pasta and other freekeh products, while in the Ukraine, ironically one of the world’s largest wheat producers, Australian-grown freekeh is being used to manufacture muesli products for local consumption and re-export. In Japan, a flour milling company and a brewer are also interested in using freekeh when supply capacity grows to high enough levels.

“As freekeh is a natural ingredient, it can be used by manufacturers to create nutritious products that enhance their competitive advantage,” Mr Lutfi says.

He says Australians have been slower to catch on at the consumer level, but adds that demand strengthened in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in 2012.

Fit for a king

Close-up of green wheat

Wheat harvested green is in increasing demand for
a modern method of processing an ancient wheat
product, freekeh.

Mr Lutfi first became aware of freekeh and its popularity in the Middle East when, as a US mechanical engineer serving as president of the Jordan Technology Development Fund in the 1980s, he was invited to dine with the Prince of Jordan. The Prince introduced him to an impressive dish of roasted green wheat known there as ‘freekeh mansaf’.

Describing the meal as green wheat peasant food, the Prince jested “you are lucky to be eating it here [at the palace] because you won’t break a tooth”.

The reference to stone and rock sediment is synonymous with traditional harvesting and processing practices. These involve harvesting the grain while it is still moist and soft, piling it on the ground to sun-dry, then carefully setting the pile on fire so that only the straw and chaff burn while the grain is gently roasted. It was this slow, manual practice that prompted Mr Lutfi to develop a product that was of uniform quality and free of grit.

Also, with ‘dirty’ freekeh from Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Egypt selling at $2000/t in bulk and $7000/t retail, he was confident he could attract a high profit margin by putting the grain through a fully automated process to provide a guaranteed ‘clean’ food.

After moving to Australia in 1990 due to political instability in Jordan, Mr Lutfi established a factory on the outskirts of Adelaide to produce freekeh that meets the internationally high standards set by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

Processing innovation

Greenwheat Freekeh™ remains the only company in the world that has developed a unique technique to parch, roast, smoke and dry freekeh – a breakthrough recognised by numerous innovation awards.

Because the green grain must be harvested and processed quickly before it turns to silage, the paddock-to-process journey cannot exceed a few hours. This means the wheat needs to be sourced within 300 kilometres of the Two Wells factory.

“We have developed modified processes to harvest the green grain and we transport it in a way that doesn’t allow the high moisture content to trigger fermentation,” Mr Lutfi says. “Careful processing at sensitive temperatures, using fire and air, preserves the grain’s peak flavour and nutrition.”

Grower opportunities

In addition to the five per cent premium that Greenwheat Freekeh™ pays for green wheat, there are further farm management opportunities for growers. Harvesting early when green to immobilise enzymes and retain nutrients, means green wheat can free-up land to either sow another crop or use for other enterprises.

“The short season reduces the risk of adverse events and minimises, even eliminates, many chemical inputs,” Mr Lutfi says.

To date, the company has produced freekeh solely from durum wheat, which delivers a superior taste to other wheat varieties. However, Mr Lutfi is planning to experiment with other green grains including barley, triticale, oats and spelt. He is confident that applying the freekeh process to these grains could also introduce a premium product for the growers of these crops.

Greenwheat Freekeh™ has several growers under contract within a 50km radius of Two Wells, but Mr Lutfi says it has been hard to find growers willing to guarantee supply.

Capitalised at more than $6 million with investment from shareholders, Greenwheat Freekeh™ is the world leader in freekeh technology and research. However, Mr Lutfi is aggrieved by the low level of government and industry support and interest, which he says could ultimately compromise the opportunity to establish a large-scale value-adding operation in Australia.

“The fact that we are a small business is holding us back because the market wants security of supply,” he says. “We currently don’t have any competitors, but there are several emerging in the US and the Americans are begging me to transfer the technology.”

Mr Lutfi says Greenwheat Freekeh™ is ready to move to the next stage of automation, which would put the company five years ahead of anyone else. “With the phenomenal growth in media and consumer awareness in the past two years, the market is there now – and we have the technology,” he says.

“I can protect the process secrets and plug companies into the technology here – it’s very portable; however, we are at a crossroads.

“The list of products that can be made from freekeh is endless, the health benefits are endless, and the benefits to growers are potentially significant. With investment or government assistance this company can become a global business based in SA, but if we can’t take the technology to the next level soon we will have to sell it, most likely to the US.

“The world is looking for value-added foods that are versatile, convenient, safe, healthy and tasty, and freekeh is all of these,” he says.

“But a commodity mindset is holding back these opportunities in Australia.”

Freekeh’n healthy

Studies undertaken by CSIRO, Australian Government Analytical Laboratories (AGAL), the University of Adelaide and Flinders Medical Centre have revealed that Greenwheat Freekeh™:

  • is a low-GI food that helps diabetes management;
  • may assist in diminishing the risk of developing colorectal cancer and diverticulitis;
  • is a ‘low-carb’ product with resistant starch content, which improves bowel health;
  • has a good prebiotic effect, with large numbers of biofidobacterium and lactobacilli;
  • is high in fibre and supports bowel health;
  • has a low fat content (similar to brown rice);
  • has a high protein content of 14 to 15 per cent, with a high of 20 per cent recorded;
  • is rich in calcium, iron and zinc; and
  • is rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, which help to prevent age-related macular degeneration.

Freekeh White rice Brown rice Dry white pasta
Table 1 Comparative analysis
Proximates per 100 grams
Moisture % (m/m) 10.8 12.5 11 9.2
Protein % (m/m) Up to 12.6 6.6 7.7 11.2
Unsaturated Fat % (m/m) 2.7 0.5 2.4 1.1
Total Carbohydrate* 72 79.1 77 70.3
Energy (kJ) 1471 1470 1530 1430
Dietary Fibre % (m/m) Up to 16.5 2.3 3.9 5
Vitamins per 100 grams
Ascorbic acid (C) (mg) <1 0 0 0
Thiamin (B1) (mg) 0.35 0.08 0.35 0.07
Riboflavin (B2) (mg) 0.22 0.02 0.05 0.06
Retinol (A) (ug) <5 0 0 0
Alpha-tocopherol (E) (mg) 0.43 N/A N/A N/A
Minerals per 100 grams
Calcium (mg) 53 7 11 18
Copper (mg) Up to 3.4 N/A N/A N/A
Iron (mg) Up to 4.5 0.7 1.2 1
Potassium (mg) Up to 440 49 165 142
Magnesium (mg) Up to 110 34 120 30
Sodium (mg) 6 5 5 5
Zinc (mg) Up to 1.7 1.1 2.1 0.6
Freekeh analysis by AGAL. Other analyses from Nutritional Value of Australian Foods, National Food Authority.
*Available carbohydrate about 45

More information:

Tony Lutfi
08 8221 5022

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