The hardy, hearty wheat called spelt

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

J and I recently baked a batch of CHOW’s Intense Brownies that we took to a dinner party. (They’re absolutely amazing, by the way, and super easy to make.) In describing the ingredients, J noted that instead of regular wheat flour we used spelt flour. He then turned to me and asked, “Why exactly do we eat spelt?” Then another dinner guest asked, “What is spelt?” I could only laugh in response to both queries because I couldn’t quite remember myself! Since then, I racked my memory and did some digging online, and here are the answers.

Even though I don’t really put much stock in it, the Blood Type Diet (which I learned about from a friend who’s very into it) has spelt on the lists of grains that are acceptable for both J’s and my different blood types. That’s how we first got into spelt. Also, when and where it makes sense, I like buying products that help encourage a little ecological diversity in the big world of commodity grains.

As TheKitchn describes, “Spelt is a species of wheat that was a very important crop in ancient and medieval times, but now it is only commonly grown in Europe. It’s been around in the United States since the 1890s, but it was replaced in the 20th century by bread wheat.” As the folks at LocalHarvest detail, “Spelt has 15-21% more protein than wheat, and also contains higher amounts of complex carbohydrates, iron, potassium, and B vitamins…. Spelt is also an organic friendly product, since its thick, protective husk serves as a natural barrier for pests, making it easier to grow using organic methods.”

So if spelt’s so great, why isn’t it more widespread? Industrialization and commercialization led to it being supplanted by modern hybrid varieties. As Phyllis Glazer explains at news website The Times of Israel, “why did spelt fall out of favor throughout the centuries? Simply because spelt’s extra-hard husk was more difficult to process, and it yielded less per field than wheat, making it more expensive for producers and consumers. Yet in recent years, an increasing number of consumers and high-end bakeries are willing to pay the cost.” Count me among them. Spelt flour tastes great in everything from my favorite crackers, the Seedlander from Doctor Kracker, to spelt pasta. (As with most grain products, I favor the pastas made with whole-grain rather than more processed “white” spelt flour.)

Worth mentioning is that, although you see reports all over the web that spelt is easier to digest than more common wheat varieties, it’s still wheat—contrary to confusion on the part of some—and thus is not safe for people with celiac disease.

Lastly, whenever we start talking about how “good” some foods are, especially grains, it’s worth revisiting Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s great book, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. We should always be both suspicious of health claims made by food purveyors and wary of moral pronouncements about what constitutes good food.


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