Brian Boyd: Ancient grains plus modern marketing equals complete nonsense

Ancient grains, whether from Tutankhamun’s tomb or Noah’s Ark, have transfixed US consumers

 

To any reasonable person the names “Emmer”, “Freekeh” and “Einkorn” would suggest a trio of Scandinavian drug dealers. They are in fact the names of “Ancient Grains”.

This neologism – no doubt blue-skied out of the box by some food PR team – is now all over Irish supermarkets. The new Kellogg’s Ancient Grains range – which comes with a massive marketing spend across TV, outdoor, digital and social media – is nutritional correctness at its finest. These “ancient grains” are “wholesome” and “unprocessed”. The wonderful thing about shoving Kellogg’s Ancient Grains down your mouth each morning is that you too can dine like an Aztec prince.

There’s very little known about “Ancient Grains” – which is odd considering they’ve been around for millennia. But what we do know and what is being loudly broadcast about “ancient grains” is that “they were worshipped by the Aztecs”.That would be the same Aztecs who also engaged in human sacrifice and cannibalism and had an average life expectancy of 25. Maybe they should have ditched the Ancient Grains for Cheerios.

With kale and quinoa having been rumbled for the ridiculous, designer label foodstuffs they are, the way is now clear for Ancient Grains to become the new flag the sanctimonious food brigade march under.

The dossier has already been sexed up: “Ancient Grains are a super, superfood” the press release tells us. It omits to tell us about the fun we can have by bringing a box of Kellogg’s Ancient Grains up to the person on the cash-till and asking: “Are these Ancient Grains fresh?”

With the lack of any historical, or indeed botanical, basis to the term “Ancient Grains”, thankfully there is a mythological intrigue about buying them in your local Spar. Commenting on how “Ancient Grains” have gone straight in at number one in the US food hit parade, a spokeswoman for the Whole Grain Council told the BBC: “It’s been a perfect storm for these ancient grains; they fit with our desire to look for a superfood, a magic bullet we should be eating. We’re drawn to the idea that ancient grains come from King Tutankhamun’s tomb. It’s a revolt against processed food, it’s the opposite of modern.”

Ancient grains – whether from Tutankhamun’s tomb or even Noah’s Ark – have certainly transfixed consumers in the US. Sales are up some 686 per cent of late – admittedly from a base of zero or thereabouts.

For Egyptian pharaoh

We’ve been here before with health-halo foodstuffs. From goji berries to polenta to omega-3 to couscous, these “nutritional powerhouses” invariably show up in January to guilt-trip the gullible anxious for a quick fix dietary solution. By Easter, they’re being used as landfill. At a time of year when people are actively seeking out better nutritional choices and when weight-loss television programmes make our health and wellbeing seem like something from the X-Factor, a breakfast cereal from 1,300 BC just isn’t going to cut it.

The story behind the irresistible rise of kale is instructive. A few years ago the American Kale Association hired a very well-connected New York publicist to help “grow” their sales. Oberson Sinclair got the once peasant food on to the menus of fashionable Manhattan eateries; Beyoncé wore a “Kale” sweatshirt in one of her music videos and bada-bing – a moribund vegetable that Irish people witheringly referred to as “the stuff in Colcannon” became a global hit.

Neurotic behaviour

Nutritionism, poetically referred to by the writer Ben Goldacre as “the bollocks du jour”, encourages neurotic behaviour about what we eat. If you insist on dividing food into “good” and “bad” consider how eggs, red meat, butter and some forms of chocolate have moved from “bad” to “good” in recent years due to improved knowledge.

If you step back a moment from the PR/marketing-go-round that is kale, “Ancient Grains”, super food, “five-a-day”, not to mention the GMO, paleo-vegan-gluten-free obstacle course or the “sugar is worse for you than heroin” dialectic.

If you choose to sit out the soon-to-hit “gourmet toast” fad not to mention this summer’s “pulses are the new blueberries” shakedown, then you can liberate yourself from all this daft, elitist, entitled-eater nonsense.

Eat in moderation and get some exercise.

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