There’s a reason certain things are called “heirlooms.” Whether it’s a diamond ring, a masterful painting or a vintage bottle of wine, each displays a deep connection to history and an artistry that cannot be replicated with mass production.
It’s no different with food.
Farmers and ranchers raising heirloom and heritage grains, produce and meats are preserving distinctive—and, in many cases, centuries-old—varieties that have been largely supplanted by high-yield, low-taste knockoffs. In fact, 75 percent of the world’s food today comes from just 12 plant and five animal species, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization
of the United Nations, which is headquartered in Rome.
With biodiversity stifled, the risk of losing an entire harvest to a single pest or pathogen rises dramatically, forcing conventional farmers to use ever-increasing levels of chemicals or genetic modifications. In addition, monoculture limits our exposure to different flavors and, in some cases, cheats us nutritionally.
Planting the seeds
Concerns about this lack of diversity in the food supply are spiking consumer interest in heirloom and heritage foods, which prize flavor and nutrition over production efficiency. U.S. sales of Kamut, a brand of heritage khorasan wheat, rose 18 percent in 2010, says Bob Quinn, president of the Big Sandy, Mont.-based company. Similarly, Richmond, B.C.-based Nature’s Path is seeing 14 percent growth this year in sales of its Heritage Flakes and Shredded Heritage Bites cereals, which contain Kamut as well as heritage millet, barley and quinoa.
“So many people have sensitivities toward modern wheat, and they don’t have the same sensitivities toward Kamut,” Quinn says, explaining the grain’s growing popularity. He’s commissioning research to find out exactly why that is, but believes that most of today’s hybridized wheat has been bred with higher levels of gluten to produce big, fluffy bread at the expense of digestibility. He says heritage grains also often have higher levels of protein and antioxidants than their modern cousins.
Maria Emmer-Aanes, spokeswoman for Nature’s Path, believes another part of heirlooms’ appeal is the sense of adventure people feel when discovering “new” ancient foods. “They have these amazing textural and flavor contributions,” she says. Indeed, culinary professionals have begun experimenting with heritage foods; a survey by the National Restaurant Association found that heirloom beans ranked among chefs’ top five produce trends for 2011.
“Everyone’s gateway to heirloom foods is tomatoes. [The broader heirloom food movement] is getting more mainstream and people are picking up on some ingredients, but it’s always chefs and restaurants that blaze a trail,” says Justin Cucci, chef and owner of Root Down, a Denver restaurant whose menu features heritage Berkshire pork, often described as having a richer, more complex flavor than traditional pork. Cucci says other heirloom and heritage grains poised to gain in popularity include millet, farro and quinoa. “I’m not sure if they’re heirloom; I just know that they’re biblical old.”
What is an heirloom?
There’s no single definition or certification for heritage and heirloom foods. According to Sustainable Table, a consumer education organization based in New York City, any livestock breed that has unique genetic traits and is raised on a sustainable or organic farm qualifies for the label. And any plant with “a history of being passed down within a family” can be considered heirloom, though some people insist the varietal be 50 to 100 years old.
It’s only natural
To many, heritage and heirloom products seem to be a logical extension of the natural products movement. “There’s nothing more natural than the species of animals or the varieties of food that were grown traditionally, before the breeders and the genetically modified [food producers] started tinkering with them,” says Dave Carter, principal at Crystal Springs Consulting in Westminster, Colo.
Though Nature’s Path has made its heritage-grain cereals since the early ’90s, only a handful of other branded products—like Milwaukie, Ore.-based Bob’s Red Mill, Clinton, Mich.-based Eden Foods and Boulder, Colo.-based Arrowhead Mills—incorporate ancient grains. “On the meat side, it’s slower to come,” Carter says. “The people who’ve been pioneering [heritage varieties] have been doing it on a relatively small scale. As demand continues to grow, we’ll see the supply build to the point they can bring this forward and get some packaged products.” But they’ll always be heirlooms—and retain the exquisite artistry their mass-produced brethren lack.