What is Spelt? An Alternative to Wheat

What is spelt

You may be hearing more about spelt, or seeing more spelt-based products on the shelves. With more consumers evaluating alternatives to wheat, the term spelt has entered common parlance. This article describes all you need to know about spelt, starting with the question “what is spelt?”

What is Spelt? An Ancient Grain

The history of spelt is complicated. Scientists still can’t confirm the precise origins. Experts believe spelt derives from a hybridization of a wild goat-grass (Aegilops tauschii) and the ancient grain, emmer. Emmer represents another form of Triticum genus grain, originating in southeast Asia and later the Middle East.

This “ancient” grain, spelt ranks among the oldest cultivated grains in the world. Consumption of spelt dates back over 5,000 years, with some evidence extending 8,000 years.

A brief history of spelt

Together with einkorn, emmer, and barley, spelt fits into a category of so-called “covered wheat.”  This means kernels remain in their casing, even during the harvest process. With each of these cereals, an outer layer (“spelt”) protects the actual grain. Ultimately, the outer layer gets removed in processing.

what is spelt

Organic spelt field

Spelt (called “dinkel” in German), first appeared in Germany around 500 AD. Initially, grown primarily in Swabish areas near Baden-Württemberg and Franconia, the grain earned the old nickname, the “Swabia grain”. You can still find villages with names like “Dinkelsbühl” that confirm the historical importance and popularity of this cereal. Until the 18th century, Dinkel wheat remained one of the most important commercial crops in these regions.

A Wheat Alternative

Due to its unique qualities, spelt has gained popularity as an alternative to wheat.  Both spelt and wheat belong to the Triticum genus of plants. The Triticum genus consists of grasses commonly cultivated for their seeds, otherwise known as “cereal grains.” 242 species of Triticum exist, with the most widely cultivated (by far), known as wheat or common wheat (Triticum aestivum).

Spelt, also known as dinkel wheat or hulled wheat, occupies a different subspecies (Titicum spelta) than wheat, and so spelt differs in many ways from common wheat.

What is spelt

An ancient grain with a rich tradition.

Spelt has not endured the widespread cultivation and demand of common wheat. Therefore spelt has experienced fewer genetic modifications inherent in domestication. Spelt’s natural state has not artificially altered over time to optimize value as a staple crop like wheat. Instead, it has retained the natural integrity of its inherent qualities.

In addition, spelt possesses more natural genetic variability than common wheat.

Spelt Nutrition versus Wheat Nutrition

Greater genetic variability means that the proteins and other nutrients in spelt may differ depending on geography of crop production. These differences become even more pronounced when comparing with the nutritional profile of common wheat. Due to mass production of a limited number of genetic varieties, common wheat retains a degree of consistency.

Spelt nutrient profile and allergies

As compared with other members of the wheat family, spelt can contain a broader range of nutrients. Many scientists suspect that the variable protein and nutrient mixture in spelt contributes to a lower risk of allergic response. Even though the two grains occupy the same botanical family, spelt provokes fewer reactions among people with celiac or other allergies.



Spelt grain

Spelt grain

From a nutritional standpoint, whole spelt and whole wheat possess similar qualities. Consumed in moderation, both contribute a healthy profile of macronutrients.

Ultimately, it comes down to your personal preference. For some historical precedent on the health benefits of spelt, see our posts on Hildegard and spelt and Hildegard’s medieval diet.

Does Spelt Contain Gluten?

The common question for spelt arises as: “is spelt gluten free?” The short answer is “no”.

 

Spelt grain

Dried spelt grain


Spelt contains gluten protein just like common wheat. But, wheat tends to be higher in protein and gluten. And, the gluten in wheat is stronger and more elastic. The stronger gluten in wheat serves as an advantage for the composition of breads and other baking. With that said, higher levels of gluten can raise digestive issues.

A different kind of gluten in spelt

The structure of the gluten protein found in spelt is different than that of wheat.  Specifically, we characterize the gluten in spelt as more fragile and water-soluble. As such, spelt gluten digests easily, but bakes with difficulty. The different gluten structure makes spelt a reasonable alternative for people with mild gluten sensitivity, but not celiac.

Gluten in Spelt and Digestion

Gluten in spelt may present problems for many people. Genetic modifications to wheat seeds, along with artificial cultivation methods have made gluten more prominent in the foods we eat. The quantity of gluten found in most modern western diets exceeds the levels we naturally tolerate.

dinkel

Spelt’s many health benefits include reducing inflammation.

Some people have developed strong allergic reactions to gluten. Many others fail to appreciate the ways in which gluten impacts their health. Gluten contributes to often overlooked symptoms, like mild digestive unrest, appetite issues, or subtle allergic reactions. Today, more people recognize that large amounts of gluten negatively impacts our digestive health.

Genetically modified grains

Our farming industry and the American consumer has overlooked spelt (dinkel) for decades. As a result, we have not seen the same attempts to modify or enhance the commercial viability of this grain. The degree of gluten in spelt has not changed in response to overwhelming demand. Today, the composition of this ancient grain remains consistent with its ancient form. A form that offers significantly lower exposure to gluten.

Gluten and Spelt

All of this begs revisiting the question: Is Spelt Gluten Free? The short answer is “no.” Certainly not for those with noticeable gluten allergies. Yet the gluten in spelt is not as rich as found in some of its enhanced modern brethren, such as wheat. In addition, the structure of spelt allows for easier digestion of the gluten it contains.

Find more on the question of Is Spelt Gluten Free? in our comprehensive post of the same name.

Farro

Spelt (farro) flour

Digesting the Gluten in Spelt

Gluten in spelt breaks-down more easily by mixing (or chewing) than gluten found in wheat. It is also water soluble, resulting in greater exposure to enzymes and acids during digestion than wheat gluten. Ultimately, this distinction  results in a smoother and less stressful digestive process.

The fragile structure of gluten in spelt makes for some challenges in baking (over-kneading breaks-down the dough, as opposed to the stiffening effect that happens with wheat flour). For the same reason, it offers a much healthier alternative grain for your diet.

Spelt health benefits

Spelt, Rye and Wheat

Unlike wheat, which becomes a stiff mass in your system, spelt breaks-down, and flows naturally through the digestive tract.

The growing market for spelt

As spelt realizes a renaissance in recognition, economic factors exert greater influence. While agribusiness attempts to improve the economic viability of spelt by using farming methods such as crossbreeding, we risk compromising this grain’s natural integrity.

The path engineered for the modification of modern wheat, reveals itself today as unappealing. We remain hopeful that informed consumers drive demand for the ancient, naturally cultivated variety of spelt. The very same ancient grain lauded by Hildegard of Bingen.

Emmer, like spelt an ancient grain

When cooking and baking with spelt, attempt to use pure grain varieties, without wheat modifications. Review the sourcing and production information of spelt manufacturers, to ensure a trusted source.

The Value of a Hulled Grain

Because of the close relationship between spelt and wheat, many people refer to it as a type of wheat, or even as “spelt wheat.” But this ancient variety differs from wheat. Most notably as a hulled grain, validating another common moniker applied to spelt as “hulled wheat.”

The meaning of a hulled grain

We know the hull as the thick inedible husk surrounding the grain. Hulled grains typically retain their hull through maturity and harvest. In cereal crops like wheat, barley, oats, rice, and others, the grain kernel we eat actually represents the seed of the plant. As the grain grows on the plant, the hull serves a protective barrier.

The hull surrounds the seed to protect it from insects and the elements. Often we hear the hull referred to as a husk.

The process of removing the hull

Removal of the hull takes place by either threshing (to loosen the hull for later processing), or by winnowing (to remove the hull entirely). In some grains, the hull becomes thin and fragile by the time the grain reaches maturity. As the hull becomes more fragile, the process of removal improves, requiring little or no threshing. In fact, removal often takes place by tossing the grains around in the air – or winnowing, to separate the hulls.

In hulled grains, like spelt, the husk remains fully intact. A hulled grain requires threshing, a more intensive removal process.

Generations of change on wheat versus spelt

Over the eons, the breading of wheat has intentionally resulted a thin and papery hull at harvest. Thereby, reducing the time and resources required for processing. Spelt, however, retains a strong husk at maturity, requiring more labor for milling and processing.

spelt breakfast

Spelt breakfast, find the recipe for spelt habermuss or spelt muesli on healthy hildegard.

Because they were not as widely cultivated, hulled grains like spelt and its wheat-related cousins, emmer and einkorn, have not changed as much over time. For this reason, we often refer to grains like spelt as heirloom grains.

A family heirloom

Spelt looks much the same as thousands of years ago — part of the appeal of this ancient grain. Also, modern harvesting techniques have resolved many of the challenges related to threshing spelt. More importantly, the tough hull allows the plant to grow organically much easier than wheat.

A tough outer shell, or hull leaves spelt naturally better protected against insects and pollutants.  It grows safely with minimal pesticides. The strong hull also means the grain remains fresh and retains its nutrients longer after harvest.

Dinkel — a crop for organic farming

Spelt has a protective layer (“hull”) surrounding its grain (“spelt”). The hull gets removed in production in order to make the spelt grain more commercially viable. The removal presents an additional processing step (and, expense) otherwise not required with common wheat. But, this structural difference makes spelt a healthier alternative to common wheat.

organic spelt

While spelt farming produces a less economical harvest, and requires a more labor-intensive production process than wheat, organic farmers appreciate certain advantages of spelt. For example, its durability and weather resistance support growth on barren, rocky soils up to 1,000 meters above sea level. And, since spelt doesn’t tolerate artificial fertilizer, it grows in protected areas, with limited or restricted water seepage.

The benefits of a thick skin

So what about that protective layer around the berry? It represents an additional production expense. But, the spelt casing serves a useful purpose in protecting the grain from pests, fungi and other possible environmental effects. The spelt casing supports the gain’s natural resilience.

Modern wheat lacks the same degree of protection. And, thus wheat requires chemical fungicides or other pesticides to preserve the plant until harvest time.

Dinkel wheat – the expense of farming spelt

An unintended consequence of agricultural industrialization left dinkel wheat (“spelt”) in obscurity. Wheat’s superior economic viability meant farmers replaced spelt crops with wheat. And, you can’t blame the farmers. Traditional wheat produces 40 percent higher yields and significantly higher profits than spelt.

Spelt Wheat

Spelt fruit bread

Despite failing as a chemically enhanced bumper crop, some of the same factors that limit mass production of spelt make it ideal for organic farming.  Perhaps the most important distinction between farming spelt and farming wheat rests in the manner that both react to extraneous influence.

Wheat reacts extremely well to artificial fertilizer, while fertilizers do not positively affect spelt plants. 

It’s All in a Name

Part of the confusion around spelt may derive from the ancient grain’s many different names. Depending on geography and even mistaken identity, spelt goes by dinkel, spelt wheat, or even farro.

We sometimes hear spelt referred to as farro, because in Italy spelt represents a type of farro. Farro traditionally refers to a group of hulled wheat varieties (not just spelt), prepared as a traditional dish.

Farro or spelt: the other ancient grain?

Formally, the term farro does not reference a specific grain. To add to the confusion, in Roman times spelt went by the name Farrum.  In modern times Farro might refer to spelt (Triticum spelta), emmer (Triticum dicoccum), or einkorn (Triticum monococcum), depending on the region in Italy and the use.

In general, Italians consider “true” farro a preparation made from emmer. One can, however, prepare farro using spelt. Farro made with spelt goes by the name farro grande. As a larger berry relative to the other two farro grains (emmer and einkorn), spelt warrants the adjective grande, or large.

Generally speaking, and traditionally, the term farro means more than spelt alone.

Germans Call Spelt “Dinkel”

Hildegard’s ancestors in Germany refer to spelt as dinkel. Germanic tribes cultivated the ancient grain when it came to the region from the Middle East, somewhere after 1500 BC. As it spread throughout Europe, the name dinkel remained.

Dinkel wheat or spelt an alternative to wheat

We call it Spelt. Germans call it dinkel wheat. By either name, it remains a reasonable alternative to wheat.

The advent of modern wheat cultivation has crowded this ancient grain out of mainstream production. However, a recent trend in revisiting ancient grains has built renewed interest around spelt, for good reason.

Spelt grain

Traditional spelt fruit bread with nuts and dates

Spelt represents an alternative to gluten-rich domesticated wheat, which pervades the typical American diet. The ancient grain also promotes positive effects on our digestive system. Hildegard of Bingen was so taken by spelt (Dinkel wheat) that she considered it the best available grain (and, probably food.) When it comes to Hildegard, dinkel wheat ranks at the top of her ancient nutritional treatment.

Hildegard of Bingen Saved Dinkel Wheat

The renewed relevance of spelt in Germany coincides with the rediscovery of Hildegard and traditional German herbal medicine. Our namesake, Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) resurrected this cereal posthumously, as one of the main pillars of her beliefs about nutrition. The abbess looked at spelt as an “all-purpose” food in the best sense. She considered it suitable for almost everyone, and virtually any situation.

The subtlety of spelt according to Hildegard

Hildegard lived before the advent of reliable nutritional charts, designed to manage diets. Without formal nutritional guidance, Hildegard innately knew about the power of plants.  According to her construct, every plant possessed certain properties (called “subtlety”) with the power to affect human health. Through her experience, supported by her visions and spiritual thinking, Hildegard categorized healthy and less healthy foods.

rolled spelt flakes

Rolled spelt

According to Hildegard, spelt possesses entirely positive subtlety. In fact, spelt serves a primary role in each of Hildegard’s three healthy fasts, and spelt coffee stands among the only permitted foods in Hildegard’s strictest fasting guidelines, which consists of only liquid. We’ve published a lot more regarding Hildegard’s views on Dinkel, including some of her soundbites on spelt benefits

Hildegard and Spelt 

So, what could we possibly learn from a nun who lived in solitude for the first 38 years of her life in the 12th Century?

Hildegard of Bingen, an old-world mystic, pioneered the connection between well-being and nutrition. She believed in achieving mental balance to create the best defense against illness. According to Hildegard, spelt (or, dinkel) serves to calm nerves, lift the mood and promote wellness, thus giving way to spiritual well-being. See Hildegard’s 8 Soundbites on Spelt Benefits.

Ancient Spelt in the Modern Kitchen

In addition to the basic nutritional value of this grain, it has also been shown to neutralize gallic acid in the intestine, reducing the probability of gallstones, lower cholesterol, and reduce inflammation. Most recently, in November 2015, Time magazine recognized Spelt as among the 50 healthiest foods of all time. Specifically, Time praised spelt for combining vitamin B2, niacin, manganese, thiamin, copper, magnesium, and amino acids.

Spelt as a drink

Ancient Connection of Spelt and Our Moods

Spelt (dinkel) promotes the production of healthy blood cells, and according to Hildegard, a relaxed temperament. Modern medicine claims the water-soluble plant-polysaccharides in spelt serve as immune-stimulants and immune-modulators. Anti-tumor properties also appear in spelt, blocking tumor-producing substances and viruses from successfully attacking healthy cells.

Due to its high content of phenylalanine and tryptophan, spelt lightens the mood and encourages a relaxed state. These amino acids serve as mood-inducing messengers, transmitting neural impulses that promote contentment. Phenylalanine produces dopamine and noradrenalin and adrenalin. Deficiencies in these tie to depressive moods.

Replacing Wheat Products with Spelt

As an ancient grain, some consider dinkel wheat or spelt the parent of wheat. More importantly it is hardier and more nutritious than wheat. An easy first step in making your kitchen more Hildegard friendly is to begin replacing your wheat products with comparable spelt products, such as spelt bread and spelt flour.

popped spelt

Popped spelt

Unlike wheat, spelt has not changed since Biblical times. Despite being one of the earliest domesticated grains, today’s “agribusiness” of genetically modified foods did not adopt spelt into its machinations, and thus spelt has remained true to its natural form, unlike wheat, which has undergone hybridization over the years. 

So, you can call it dinkel, but not dinkel wheat.

Spelt Preserves Historical Integrity

While farmers may have grown spelt as long ago as 5000 BC in the region then known as Mesopotamia – now Iran. As civilizations migrated westward, spelt moved along with them. Not until the early 1900’s spelt migrated to North America and by 1910 more than 600,000 acres of spelt were harvested annually in the U.S. alone.

When the Industrial Revolution rolled through in the early 20th century, spelt (dinkel) took a back seat to its more modern cousin wheat. By the 1970’s, virtually no spelt appeared in North America, because of the superior harvest and processing of modern, hybridized versions of wheat.

Spelt classification as wheat

In a January 1, 2006 ruling, the FDA classified spelt in the wheat family, even despite significant differences between common wheat and spelt. Notably the molecular structure of the protein in spelt remains more brittle and soluble, allowing it assimilate more easily during digestion.

spelt bran

Spelt bran

In Europe, spelt retains its popularity as a health food known for its ‘nutty’ flavor. Spelt products appear much more commonly today in Germany.  Many still compete against the preponderance of wheat products produced by the global agribusiness industry.

Dinkel Whole Grain, Bread of the Year

On October 16th we celebrate international World Bread Day. In recognition of this occasion, in 2018 the German Bread Institute designated spelt whole grain bread as the bread of the year.

The German Bread Institute’s Scientific Advisory Board selected spelt whole grain bread, “because spelt has been a triumphant success in Germany, since its humble origins in the Swabian Alps to its now ubiquitous presence in German bakeries nationwide, it satisfies through flavor and nutrition.”

After a decline in cultivation in the 20th century, recent years have seen a sharp rise in consumer demand, spawning resurgence in the tradition of spelt whole grain bread and cereals.

The German Bread Institute selected spelt whole meal bread out of the approximately 3,200 bread specialties within its German bread register. Spelt whole grain bread combines tradition and modernity in a delicious and nutritious food.  In addition to bread, substitute spelt flour for modern ‘common’ wheat flour to make pastas, cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, cereals, pancakes and waffles.

In addition to spelt flour, spelt also serves in its de-hulled, whole grain form (often referred to as spelt berries, or dinkel berries!), which can be prepared and enjoyed like rice. Find our spelt bread recipe here.

“Nothing but spelt and water”

Dr. Gottfried Hertzka, helped rediscover Hildegard Medicine, along with Dr. Wighard Strehlow. Both Drs. Hertzka and Strehlow concurred with Hildegard’s views of the overwhelming health benefits of spelt. In fact, in answer to a question of how he would treat his own cancer, Dr. Hertzka said the following:

“If I ever would get cancer, I would retire with a bag of spelt and a little bag of salt on a remote mountain in the Bavarian Alps and live only by spelt and water. Then we would see who is stronger, me or cancer.”

The Best Ways to Eat Spelt

Spelt can be used in many different forms. As flour, spelt serves in baking just as one would use wheat flour. Spelt also appears commonly in cuisine in its whole grain form, known as spelt “berries” — great in salads, soups, or hot cereals.

Cracked spelt

Cracked spelt

Spelt has a lovely, nutty flavor similar to barley. It has more natural sugar than wheat, so it can also taste slightly sweet depending on the preparation. Spelt sells in the form of flour, whole berries, or cracked spelt.  Today, a number of brands incorporate spelt into prepared products like bread, pasta, cookies, crackers, and even beer!

Spelt Recipes

For some ideas on how to incorporate spelt into your diet, see our spelt flour cookie recipe, spelt flour bread recipe, spelt flour coffee cake recipe, spelt four banana bread recipe, spelt pancakes recipe, spelt semolina casserole or even our spelt flour pizza dough recipe for some delicious ways to use spelt flour in baking.

spelt bread

Spelt bread

In addition to the many uses of spelt flour, we have compiled some great recipes that illustrate the versatility of this ancient grain. We have spelt breakfast habermus, spelt summer salad, and spelt tabbouleh salad recipes that highlight the slightly sweet and nutty flavor of the whole spelt grain or “berry.” Spelt alsle serves as a healthy alternative to coffee by following our simple spelt coffee recipe.

So what is spelt? A delicious and healthy whole grain with endless possibilities.

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