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If you’ve looked even briefly into the controversial topic of whether or not to consume grains (see my take here), you’ve probably heard of a “better” choice called spelt.
This ancient cousin of wheat has enjoyed rising popularity in health food circles in recent years, especially among those with food sensitivities.
But should spelt be on your grocery list? Is it really healthy?
What Is Spelt?
An ancient relative of wheat, spelt originated in the Middle East and gained widespread popularity in Europe as far back as 750-15 B.C. While many grains date back to this time, spelt is still called an “ancient grain” today because it remains largely unchanged even in the last several hundred years, while other forms of wheat have experienced dramatic redefinition.
Over millennia, wheat replaced spelt and other ancient grains as it was cultivated to produce higher yield and free-threshing kernels (to allow the grain to separate easily from the chaff during harvest).
Spelt and other ancient grains are still enjoyed in some parts of the world and have been popularized in the U.S. as a health food. Those who enjoy spelt bread and pasta say it tastes better than wheat and describe it as nutty, wholesome, and more filling.
Spelt can be cooked and eaten whole (called spelt berries) and used as a warm side or in a cold salad, or it can be ground into flour for baking. While most baking sites say that you can substitute spelt for whole wheat flour in most recipes, I find some tinkering is usually needed for the best result, as it contains less gluten and more protein than regular flour.
Wondering what the verdict is? First, the good news:
The Good News: Spelt Is (Slightly) Healthier than Wheat
Many spelt health benefit claims are anecdotal, but there are some reliable studies that indicate spelt has two main advantages over modern wheat hybrids:
Spelt has a Better Nutritional Profile than Common Wheat
While I maintain that grains have little nutritional value in comparison to better food choices like vegetables, spelt does boast a higher protein and mineral content than modern wheat (although some could argue that the difference is slight).
A 2012 study found that:
Spelt differs from wheat in that it has a higher protein content (15.6% for spelt, 14.9% for wheat), higher lipid content (2.5% and 2.1%, respectively), lower insoluble fiber content (9.3% and 11.2%, respectively) and lower total fiber content (10.9% and 14.9%, respectively). There are no important differences in starch, sugar and soluble fiber content, and there is a qualitative diversity at the protein, arabinoxylan and fatty acid levels. (1)
It is important to note that studies also find the nutrient levels vary quite a bit among spelt samples. (2) This means that the strain of spelt used, the environment in which it’s grown, and the method of farming all affect the final product’s nutritional value. So check your labels carefully and choose from credible organic producers.
While spelt is lower in gluten, it does contain gluten. A 1995 study found that the gluten in spelt has largely the same properties as those in wheat and so should be strictly avoided by celiacs. (3)
Anecdotally, many with food allergies do seem to have success digesting spelt. Evidence is lacking as to why. It’s possible that spelt’s greater solubility makes its proteins more digestible, including its gluten. Still, for someone who suspects gluten intolerance or a compromised gut, it’s best to avoid spelt and all grains completely.
But otherwise, here’s another reason to consider spelt:
Spelt Works Well with Sustainable & Organic Farming Practices
I’ve long suspected that food allergies can stem from reactions to the chemicals used in modern agriculture. Today’s wheat crops are one of the worst offenders.
Spelt, since it has not been adapted for modern threshing, has an extremely tough exterior hull that naturally protects the kernel from disease, pests, and mildew. It grows well in wet conditions, extracts fewer nutrients from the soil, and resists rancidity.
This makes it an organic farmer’s best friend and means fewer chemicals passing into the earth and into your family’s food source.
The Not-So-Good News: A Healthier Grain Is Still a Grain
Grains may not be all bad, but the fact is in today’s society overconsumption is all too easy. Highly refined and processed grains are everywhere in the modern American diet. Even products labeled “whole grain” are dubious:
(W)hole grain” refers to any mixture of bran, endosperm and germ in the proportions one would expect to see in an intact grain—yet the grains can be, and usually are, processed so that the three parts are separated and ground before being incorporated into foods. (Refined grains, on the other hand, are grains that have been stripped of their bran and germ.) For a food product to be considered whole grain, the FDA says it must contain at least 51 percent of whole grains by weight. Compared with intact grains, though, processed whole grains often have lower fiber and nutrient levels. (4)
Even when consumed in their true whole form, modern grains have diminished nutritional value compared to years past, and their high levels of phytic acid block nutrient absorption.
Wouldn’t it be better to spend our money, effort, and calories on obtaining fresh produce–vegetables and fruits proven to be brimming with highly available, much needed vitamins, minerals, and enzymes?
But if you must have your bread and pasta, there’s one way to make grains healthier!
Make the Best of It: Sprouting
I’ve talked before about the benefits of traditionally preparing grains, nuts, and seeds to reduce phytic acid and other anti-nutrients. Many studies confirm the nutritional benefit of sprouting grains. It boosts protein content and available amino acids, promotes enzyme activity, and does much of the digestive work your body would otherwise have to do. (5)
If you decide some grains have a place in your family’s meals, consider soaking and sprouting as a way to increase the nutritional value. It isn’t nearly as difficult as you might think. You can use a simple mason jar and a screw-on lid made for sprouting.
Fill the mason jar no more than halfway with organic spelt berries (or grain of choice) and rinse and drain several times in clean, cool water. Fill with filtered water and let it sit overnight.
The next day, drain and rinse, and drain again. Tilt the mouth of the jar (with sprouting lid on) down into a bowl. I just prop the jar up on a folded towel to keep it in place.
Within a day or so, tiny white sprouts will appear. When the sprouts are about ? inch long, they are ready for use. At this point you can dry them in a low oven (125-150 F) or in a dehydrator for about 24 hours. Grind to make flour.
You can also purchase organic sprouted spelt flour from a quality source.
Does spelt have a place in your diet? If yes, how do you use it? I would love to hear!
Discussion (52 Comments)
I can’t give up my whole grain organic breads that I grind fresh but substitute more Kamut grain.
A 50 pound bag of organic kamut is $50 and it goes a long way.
I figured putting this comment here would be as good as anywhere.
When ppl talk about nutrient-dense grains, I chuckle outloud; sometimes a guffaw escapes even.
Compared to other grains, some grains have more nutrients, yes. Oats are the highest protein grain (besides the gourmet grains, like quinoa) but that doesn’t mean oats are high in protein in any sense of the word! For nutrient dense food, animals and vegetables are densest, followed by tubers and fruit. Legumes are not protein dense compared to animal. You would have to eat 1 1/2 cups of pintos to get the protein in a small hamburger. Some beans have MORE iron or calcium than others, but none are mineral DENSE, especially in bioabsorbable minerals. Grains have B vitamins, meat has far more. Grains have fiber, veggies have far more. There’s nothing in grains you can’t easily get elsewhere, including their main feature, starch. Fruit and tubers have alots of that. Legumes do too; nuts and seeds have it also.
The hard part of grainfree is cultural. Our comfort foods, holiday foods and easy foods (easy to store, cook and keep) are grains. But let’s not fool ourselves that grains are nutrient-DENSE. That’s biochemically untrue.
No, grains are not nutrient-dense compared to meat. Nothing is. That does not mean that healthy people should avoid grains. Some people are constitutionally incapable of doing well on grains in any quantity. Some folks can handle a small qty. Others can eat more. Not all of us are cursed with intestinal or serious liver issues.
Prior to cultivation of grains, paleo- and neolithic man consumed wild grains. True – it has been “only” 10,000 years. But 10,000 years = 400 generations. Except for aboriginal peoples, who had no contact with grains whatsoever, we adapted to grains during that time period.
Consumption of grains increased the size of the human brain and ultimately resulted in civilization. Maybe you don’t like civilization; I have a few problems with it, come to think of it. But most of us can indeed digest, and benefit from, the consumption of properly prepared grains. Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater simply because grains come up short – in some respects – to animal flesh.
Grains come up quite short in all respects, compared to not just meat but also veggies and fruit. Thats the point of my post.
No, I will NOT be eating any grains or beans. I cannot believe that Dr. C and others still spout that those are good for people. (as long as you buy their products that is the cure?). Perhaps for a lot of people they are but……NOT for people with autoimmune diseases which most people have whether they are aware of it or not. Diabetes and No Thyroid are two of my biggest complaints about thse HEALTHY EATING sites! Most people do not have the time to be sprouting all these nuts, beans, and seeds! Buying them is expensive….Why???? Just don’t eat them! There is one health site were the lady admits that she orders her ancient grains from Europe because they are healthier. As for your site, I have been disappointed since you have become so comercial with everything. I remember when you were much different and you were so personable.
Bettie, I’m not sure what you mean that my blog has “become so commercial with everything” and that I was “much different” and “so personable”. Can you please explain?
Very well said Helen. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I research constantly. I also use a site that tests all drugs and supplements to let you know what is available and what is not approved for use. It is a shame others don’t. Like the redundant questions on every recipe I come across wanting to know what can be used instead of??? All they have to do is goggle it and find the answer if they haven’t already searched their local groceries for substitues that are clearly lableled. Gluten free means nothing really, it only a tiny portion of the grain and a great gimmick to get more buyers for that almighty dollar.
Although I am not able to eat a lot of grains because of colon issues, I believe we need grains for nutrients, proteins, fiber and energy. There r so many choices for everyone. Since I have seen the “whole grain” thing, I’ve come to realize that whole grain comes from adding MORE gluten. We have so much gluten in just about every processed product. And we think the manufacturers have changed for us,ha! The bread, Ezekiel, comes from the diet God gave Ezekiel to sustain him, so our 2ND science-based study (Daniel being the 1st). I would say, Read your labels especially if it says whole grains, read more on grains with different authors and learn to make a variety of dishes from grains. Don’t be fooled with we don’t need grains; sounds like the apple or egg!
What is your opinion on einkorn wheat? Same any better?
Some people do fine with it. I personally avoid it because I feel better grain free, but I have friends who are noticeably sensitive to wheat but do ok with it.
I just made spelt bread two days ago. I can’t stand regular whole wheat. It always comes out heavy, but, for the first time ever, I made a fluffy bread with not much wheaty flavor.
We love it! I was first turned on to spelt because it was the only organic tortillas I could find (impossible to make). I grew up on white bread, so we have come a long way, but spelt is the closest I can find to all purpose flour so far. I was able to exchange it for bread flour exactly in my recipe.
I believe, though not the nutritional qualities of veggies, bread is filling g and good. We shouldn’t glutton on anything, but in moderation.
I imagine spelt is forever a staple in our home!
What are your thoughts in slow fermented sourdough bread? I know it’s still a grain but from research it appears to be a healthier grain like spelt.
Definitely improves the nutrition of a grain.
Some time ago I thought I’d take a crack at making sprouted wheat and spelt bread (Manna bread). Both grains act the same in this case.
You must understand that sprouted wheat bread is a sweet, heavy, most, cake-like loaf. If you want sprouted wheat or spelt bread to look and taste like regular bread, then you buy Sprouted Wheat Flour or Sprouted Spelt Flour. However, you don’t simply substitute your sprouted wheat flour for the regular flour. You have to find a recipe intended for sprouted wheat flour. There are some on the w.w. web. I have made such bread a few times and it is fine, but I would say slightly trickier than making bread from regular wheat.
I prefer buying Ezekiel Bread.
Please don’t trouble yourself to make sprouted wheat flour. It is too much effort when you can so easily buy it. They know how to do it just right at the flour factory; perhaps there is some trick to making sprouted wheat flour that only the professionals know.
My sweet, home-made sprout bread: Not from flour.
*Sprout the grain for a few days.
*Preheat your oven to maybe about 275 deg. F.
*Grind these sprouts in a hand or electric grinder. Add a bit of salt.
*Shape the ground-up sprouted wheat or spelt into a mound, I made mine into an oval shape about 7″ X 5″ and about 2″ in height. Like the Manna Bread you buy in the store in the freezer section.
*Place this loaf onto a baking sheet and bake for a long time, Maybe 2-1/2 hours. You will know when it’s properly baked.
*Cool, slice & eat. I spread mine with miso mixed with a bit of lemon juice. God, this is good.
Good luck in your baking.
Thanks for sharing, Samia!
What about traditionally prepared sourdough spelt bread. Supposedly the fermentation process reduces many of the harmful elements including the gluten. What are your thoughts on that?
It might be a great option for someone who doesn’t have trouble with gluten. Of course, celiacs and those with certain health challenges won’t be able to consume it, but for those without these health conditions, it may be a good option and the sprouting/fermenting definitely seems to improve the nutrition of the grain.
Last year when I was trying to cut wheat out of my diet (along with refined sugars and dairy products) I was overwhelmed with the aspect of having to give up my breads, til someone introduced me to spelt. I started using it in my baking instead of wheat and noticed a significant difference in the way I felt (but my problems weren’t gluten-based). I was even able to lose the extra baby weight my body didn’t seem to want to get rid of. And my toddler loves everything I make with it. My favorite is a recipe I found on Pinterest for honey spelt bread. Yum!
Do you mind sharing the recipe for this bread?
I, too, eliminated modern wheat from my diet several years ago for health reasons that had nothing to do with gluten. I use Vita Spelt brand flour in both white and whole grain. I can purchase the flours locally, but they are also available online; as is Vita Spelt pasta.
The recipes on the flour bag are excellent. My favorite is the Banana Muffin recipe on the Whole Grain bag. It is my favorite breakfast.
-9 c spelt flour
-9 T oil (I use extra virgin olive oil)
-1 T salt
-1/4 c honey
-2 2/3 c warm water
-3/4 c warm water
-2 T yeast
-1/4-1/2 c chia seeds/flax (opt.)
Mix yeast, 3/4 c water and honey together and let sit. In large bowl mix remaining water, oil and salt together. Add yeast mix and flour. Knead. Add chia seeds and/or ground flax. (If adding chia less flour is needed. I’ve found that it needs a bit more flour than this recipe calls for unless you add the chia seeds). Let rise (I do about an hour). Knead again. I divide the dough into 3 bread pans then turn on oven and let rise while oven heats up. Bake at 425 for 20-25 min.
Also super delicious if you mix in a handful of raw sunflower seeds!
Do you have a recipe for sprouted grain bread? Several years ago I did the large amount of work of sprouting, dehydrating, grinding and trying bread recipes, with no success. So I went back to fresh ground, organic whole wheat bread.
That’s a recipe I’m still playing with… 😉
Thats why God invented the Food For Life company to give us Ezekiel bread 😉
Its hard to get a decent loaf of sprouted grain bread. And Ezekiel bread comes in sesame (our fav) & cinn-raisin for special times or great french toast. Their eng muffins are very good too and the tortillas…
I have no association with Food For Life, but love their breads. 🙂
Yes but it also has added gluten.