By Michael Boland, Kansas State University and Diane Huntrods, AgMRC, Iowa State University.
With its origins around 5,000 B.C., spelt is one of the oldest cultivated grains. Some controversy exists as to whether cultivation began in present day Iran, or concurrently in southeastern Europe and Iran. As early civilizations moved westward, they took the crop with them and spelt cultivation came to be widespread. In Italy the crop is known as Farro. Germans know it as Dinkle, and it was Farrum in Roman times. Isolated regions in southeastern Europe (mainly Germany and Switzerland) still grow spelt as a major cereal crop.
Spelt is often compared to wheat both in its nutritional content as well as its physical characteristics. It is known as a distant cousin to modern wheat. The crop has more protein, simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates than does wheat. It is also higher in B complex vitamins. Spelt is high in fiber and contains mucopolysaccharides (a type of carbohydrate), which are important in blood clotting and stimulating the immune system. The grain also dissolves easily in water and thus facilitates nutrient absorption.
While modern wheat has been bred for higher yields, ease in harvesting and use in commercial baked goods, spelt retains many of its original traits. The spikelets contain two kernels while the glumes have wide square shoulders and short beaks. Its tough hull protects the kernel while helping it to maintain its nutrients and freshness. This hull stays on the kernel through harvesting and shipping and is removed just before the grain is ground into flour. Many times, spelt does not require pesticides because the hull protects the kernel from insects.
Production and Marketing
U.S. production of spelt peaked in the early 1900s and has declined steadily since then. During the 1900s, five cultivars were grown in the United States. A comparison of spelt with wheat, barley and oats reveals why spelt production has decreased. While spelt has a higher protein content, it also has inconsistent yields, low test weights, a shortage of adapted cultivars and an expensive dehulling process. Wheat, barley and oats have higher yields, consistent (and high-) quality crops and the ability to free thresh (the hulls are separated from the kernel at harvest). Many of these qualities can be attributed to breeding programs.
In 1987 Purity Foods reintroduced spelt to the U.S. food market. Spelt acreage has increased from around 100 acres in 1987 to close to 8,000 acres today. Both organic and commercial spelt are produced under contract. Spelt is the only "covered wheat" grown and marketed in the United States for human food. Spelt products can be purchased at organic health food stores and include raw products such as grains, whole grain flour and white flour, and processed products such as pasta, cereals, bread mixes, cake mixes and muffin mixes.
- Certified Organic Spelt Enterprise Budget, Government of British Columbia, Canada, 2002.
- CROPP contracts brings profitability to Ohio grass-based organic dairies, Rodale Institute, 2004 - This Amish farmer in Ohio raises a variety of spelt products.
- Farmer Finds His Niche with Spelt, Farming magazine.
- Optimising the quality and yield of spelt under organic production in SE Australia, Australian Society of Agronomy, 2008.
- Purity Foods, Inc., University of Kentucky Extension, 2000 - Case study about the company's Vita-Spelt line of baking flour, pastas, bread mixes and other spelt-based products.
- Spelt, Alternative Field Crops Manual, University of Wisconsin Extension and University of Minnesota Extension, 1990.
- Spelt, New Crop Opportunities Center, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.
- Spelt for Human Health and Nutrition, Farming the Northwest series, Washington State University Extension, 2004.
Written August 2003 and revised June 2011. Links checked August 2017.