What We're Eating This Year: Ancient Grains, Coconut Oil, Kale, and More

freekehPredictions and observations by experts give us some insights into what foods are trendy this year. Many 2012-13 favorites are still with us, and some new ones are attracting consumer dollars.  Let's find out what a survey of nutritionists prognosticated, what our site's Advisory Board scientists have noticed, and what ubiquitous salty edible your Shelf Life Advice editor has nibbled her way through multiple times this year. Concluding comments cover her reactions to kale, freekeh, and that salty edible referred to above.


Survey Results


Today's Dietitian magazine published the results of its annual survey. It compiled the thoughts of some 500 registered dietitians on food trends.  Here are some of the trends the survey highlighted:


  • "American demands for health information is at an all-time high."  "Supermarket dietitian" is "the fastest growing job classification in grocery stores nationwide."  TV shows and computer blogs are dishing out gobs of information (and misinformation) about nutrition and diet.  Americans are eager for any and all ideas about how to become or stay thin and healthy.
  • Grocery shoppers are concerned about ecological issues, so they're looking for local and sustainable foods that they believe help to meet these goals. 
  • Interest in low-carb and gluten-free diets is growing, but low-fat is "falling flat."
  • Anti-wheat sentiment is growing (for example, concern that wheat causes extra belly fat, despite the lack of evidence that a gluten-free diet aids weight loss).  Instead, ancient grains are becoming the side dish or casserole base of choice in more and more households.
  • Specific foods that the survey said will continue to grow in popularity this year: kale, coconut oil, and chia seeds.


Perhaps not much of the above surprised you; most of these trends have been ongoing for a few years. But let's focus on scientists' reactions to the newer foods that seem to be in every supermarket and on every restaurant menu nowadays.


Our Board Members' Comments on Particular Trendy Foods


Ancient grains:


What are ancient grains?  Just what the name suggests.  They're grains that have been available since before modern times (go back thousands of years) and have been untouched by time, that is, they haven't been subject to formal genetic selection although farmers have always done some selection by their choice of plants to collect seeds from. According to a Yahoo article ("Ancient Grains 101"), "Because they have not been modified over the ages, ancient grains have retained their robust nutty distinctive flavor and texture."


 Besides offering consumers a novel taste, what else do they offer consumers willing to try something new that's very old?  They're credited with containing more nutrients and more fiber than the grains Americans have traditionally dined on. Another reason for their popularity: many ancient grains originated in Aztec, Incan, or African cultures, which gives them the marketing appeal of exotic foods.


Here are some ancient grains you may find in your supermarket: quinoa [pronounced keenwah], teff, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, sorghum, freekeh, barley, chia, and Kamut® (khorasan, an ancient Egyptian wheat).  Most of these (but not kamut) are gluten-free, making them suitable for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. For a longer list of ancient grains and tips on how to prepare them, go to the Whole Foods page Grains.


 Food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein reminds us that most ancient grains should be approved for consumption during the Jewish holiday of Passover, when, for 8 days, observant Jews do not eat leavened products. (One--quinoa--has been approved and was available for Passover this year with kosher certification.)  Matzo substitutes for bread during this holiday period; it's made with wheat that hasn't been leavened (allowed to rise). 


Dr. Regenstein also says that he uses quinoa a lot.  "I like the taste, it's easy to use, and it can be used in many dishes that would normally use wheat."


Food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser says that, of all the ancient grains, buckwheat is his favorite.  "I use it in pancakes and waffles and find that it gives an especially unique and desirable flavor and texture. I always mix it with wheat flour and normally use buttermilk in my pancake or waffle recipes. I've served buckwheat waffles to dozens of teenage visitors to our home and never had a complaint, only praises." 


Food scientist Dr. Karin Allen points out that ancient grains are not all alike. Some are heavier than others, for example, barley and whole wheat.  Quinoa has a crunch to it but a lighter texture.  She says, "Ancient grains can be substituted in any recipe that calls for rice or pasta, but the cooking time must be adjusted."  Different ancient grains also differ in terms of what nutrient they supply a lot of.  For example, some contain more protein than others.


Chia seeds:


Dr. Bowser also gives a thumbs up to chia seeds but with qualifications: "Chia seeds are certainly unique and tasty, but I hesitate to compare them to other seeds. I believe that they are beneficial and healthful, but they do not have 'super-food' status." Claims have been made about heart health, weight loss, and other benefits to be derived from eating these seeds. However, there's no scientific evidence that it does aid in weight loss. Before you buy some (They aren't cheap.), read the WebMD article "The Truth about Chia."  Also, google the topic, and read some of the articles about possible negative side effects and contamination. 


The Yahoo article "Ancient Grains 101" says, "After soaking in water, chia seeds become gelatinous in texture, and may be added to puddings, juice drinks, or water.  Ground chia seeds may be added to baked goods."  They won't have much effect upon the taste of food they're added to, but they will provide some additional nutrients. Some people say they have no taste at all; others detect a mild taste.


Coconut oil:


Dr. Bowser is enthusiastic about coconut oil:  "I love to cook with coconut oil and find that it is extremely tasty. Popcorn is my absolute favorite food cooked with coconut oil. I pop it on the stovetop in a pan with a very thin puddle of coconut oil. I also have a recipe for nutty-coconut ice cream that contains coconut flakes and coconut milk.  Coconut oil keeps well in a cool place and remains stable for a long time. I use a microwave to melt it just prior to adding it to recipes."  Note: Dr. Bowser also uses coconut oil mixed with olive oil to make his own soap!


For more information about coconut and its products, read "Coconut Products: Are They Really Health Foods?"


Heritage tomatoes:


Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter mentions a particular food trend not cited by the survey.  Heritage tomatoes are hugely popular because of their delicious flavor and fine texture.  Gardeners seek out heritage tomato seeds so they can grow their own.


Brazilian food and Southwestern U.S. food:


Dr. Allen sees these as 2014 trends.  I've noticed, too, that Brazilian restaurants have been popping up in the Chicago area, and more Campbell's soups are catering to those who like the seasonings of the Southwest.


Your Shelf Life Advice Editor's Perspective on 3 Popular Foods




If you don't know what kale is or why it's so popular, check out livescience.com, "What is kale?" You'll learn that it's a leafy green vegetable related to broccoli, cabbage, and other veggies kids just adore.  It's been touted as a superfood because it's rich in nutrients.  More details and recipes are in the livescience article.


Here's what I've learned from eating kale: anything can become tasty if you know how to doctor it.  I've tried raw kale in a salad and found it tasteless and utterly forgettable.  However, a famous diner in Evanston, Illinois (Lucky Platter) serves warm braised kale in an Asian sauce, and that's delicious. But the credit goes to the sauce, not the kale.  Dr. Cutter suggests that adding dill butter to kale will perk up the taste.


Kale is low in calories and high in nutrients.  Therefore, at a dinner party I attended recently, a slender, attractive woman who obviously wants to stay that way told me that her every-evening snack is kale. That sounded like torture to me until she said that she cooks it first, bakes it at a low temperature until it becomes crispy. That gives it a satisfying crunchiness that actually makes her feel like she's eating something.  I'm going to try it someday when my slacks won't zip up.


Google kale, and you'll find all sorts of recipes for using it in soups, casseroles, etc. Moreover, you'll find the title of an entire cookbook devoted to kale.  Talk about trendy! 




Searching for an ancient grain to try, I happened upon freekeh (which is roasted green wheat) and purchased that because the story of its beginnings (printed on the package) was so interesting.  Picture a Middle Eastern village about 2000 years ago.  The village is attacked, and the villagers' young wheat crop is set afire.  To salvage their product, the villagers rubbed off the chaff, cooked what was left, and created a tasty, nutritious ancient grain. 


I followed the instructions on the package and cooked the freekeh for 25 minutes. It tasted okay but bland. I added seasoned salt and garlic powder, tasted again, and contemplated more additions. I wound up using it for 3 different meals. It reminded me of oatmeal, so first I ate it for breakfast as hot cereal with syrup.  Yummy!  Then, the next day, for lunch, I tried a little as a pasta-like side dish by mixing it with spaghetti sauce.  So-so.  Freekeh was at its best as a dinner entrée.  I poured some Campbell's Thai curry sauce (intended for use with chicken) in a pan, added some cooked shrimp, heated  the mixture briefly, and served that mixture over microwaved leftover freekeh.  It was spicy but fabulous! But keep in mind that freekeh (like other ancient grains) is a whole grain product.  Eating a lot of it may lead to flatulence if your innards are inclined that way. 




In June of 2012, I wrote an article for Shelf Life Advice praising Wendy's shocking summer sensation--the bacon chocolate sundae. Bacon has been following me everywhere ever since.  At the meat counter in my supermarket, cooked cold bacon slices are offered free as a snack, and ready-to-cook chicken breasts wrapped in bacon slices are offered for sale. These days, bacon seems to be thrust into almost everything served in a restaurant.  The nutritionists seem to have missed this chef's habit when they listed 2014 trends. But I think you'll agree that I can justify calling bacon an ongoing trend when I tell you that very recently, I found small pieces of it in 3 restaurant items I ordered: shrimp soup, pickled vegetables, and mushroom-cheese flatbread.  


If you cannot eat bacon for religious or other reasons (or don't want to), be on the lookout for tiny pieces of it hidden in any restaurant concoction.  Alternatively, ask if bacon is in each recipe before ordering.


Finally, two questions:


1) In your kitchen, have you really replaced rice and pasta with amaranth and teff? Or are you content to leave ancient grains in the distant past? 


2) If Americans have actually switched from pizza and ice cream to ancient grains and kale, why aren't we all svelte?  




prnewswire.com "14 Top Diet Trends for 2014"



livescience.com "What is Kale?" 



yahoo.com "Ancient Grains 101"



wholefoodsmarket.com "Grains"



webmd.com "The Truth About Chia" 



Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science



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