Putting healthy minor cereals back on the menu is the objective of the aptly named EU-funded project HealthyMinorCereals. Partners from 10 countries cooperated in this effort to develop and highlight the potential of traditional grain crops that have been upstaged by common wheat and barley.
Their message has fallen on fertile ground, says project coordinator Dagmar Janovská of the Crop Research Institute, Czechia.
‘There is growing interest among farmers in ways of diversifying their production and cultivating crops that may well produce lower yields but are able to thrive under low-input systems and have high nutritional value,’ she explains.
Particular attention in the project focused on oats, rye and three lesser-known types of wheat: einkorn, emmer and spelt. Compared to the dominant grain crops, these cereals require far less in the way of fertiliser, pesticides and energy, the partners note. Further sustainability benefits derive from the fact that growing a wider variety of crops is in itself a useful strategy, in terms of potential exposure to droughts and diseases.
Optimising cultivation methods was one of the project’s priorities, as was the refinement of processing techniques. The researchers also interacted with millers, bakers and other interested parties to generate momentum, address practical matters and explore the market potential.
The HealthyMinorCereals partners planted, studied and cross-bred many hundreds of genotypes. They selected varieties with promising qualities, such as higher yields, greater resistance to fungal infections and particular suitability for processing, while also looking into potential health benefits.
One intriguing finding in particular emerged in that respect, according to the team.
‘Minor cereals contain surprisingly high levels of certain antioxidant substances,’ says Janovská. ‘Our results indicate that increased consumption of foods made from minor cereals might help to prevent oxidative cell damage and minimise the detrimental effects of a number of chronic illnesses.’
It would be premature to say more, she adds – the results have yet to be published. But the case for reintroducing minor cereals into our diets might turn out to be even stronger than it appeared when this five-year project was launched.