Spelt (Triticum spelta) is an ancient grain which is related to common bread wheat (Triticum sativum) but has certain properties which make it in many respects quite different. Having fallen from favour as a grain for cultivation in the 19th century following the rapid development in modern farming techniques, spelt is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity as information about its value as a food source and its ability to be tolerated by many people with wheat sensitivities becomes more widely known.
History and Origins
The history and origins of spelt are somewhat confused and complex. There is evidence that spelt was cultivated by ancient civilizations both in Europe and the Middle East thousands of years ago. It is mentioned in the Old Testament and in various Roman texts. Carbonated grains of spelt have been found throughout Europe including Britain, in many Stone Age excavations. Its popularity remained widespread, especially in Eastern Europe, until the end of the 19th century. German records of one region, dated 1850, showed that 94 percent of the cereal acreage was producing spelt and only 5 percent producing bread wheat. The rapid fall from favour of spelt was mirrored by rapid developments in modern farming. Once combined harvesters were introduced which could harvest common bread wheat in a single process it would have no longer been so attractive for farmers to continue to grow spelt. This is because each individual grain of spelt unlike common wheat is covered by a tough outer husk which requires removal in a further process before the grain can be milled into flour.
Fortunately spelt was not entirely lost to mankind and in the mid 1980's it was rediscovered in Europe and has undergone a major resurgence in many parts of the world ever since. However for this to happen, special machinary which could dehull individual spelt grains in commercial quantities needed to be introduced into the chain of production for making flour. However by this stage it was realised by those taking the lead in this renaissance that the time and cost of having to do this was far outweighed by the advantages to both farmers and consumers of resurrecting this ancient grain.
Spelt in Australia
The Australian spelt story started in 1988 after a farming couple from NSW heard about the revival of the spelt crop in Europe. The idea of growing spelt in Australia interested them so they obtained about 50 seeds from a European seed bank. The spelt turned out to be relatively easy to grow here and after four years of harvesting with a pair of scissors they were able to build up a seed stock. Eventually their crop became a commercial reality when, after building their own special machine for dehulling the grain, they began milling it into flour for sale to wholesalers and bakers. Today the sales of spelt are skyrocketing as consumers happily rediscover the pleasure of eating spelt and learn about its nutritional benefits.
Spelt is by nature a wholefood. Unlike wheat, where vital nutritional bran and germ are usually removed during milling, the vital substances of spelt are found in the inner kernel of the grain. However this does not mean that spelt makes a heavy loaf. In fact the exact opposite is true. The real beauty of spelt is in its ability to make a really light, highly nutritious loaf with an appealing nutty flavour. The protein in spelt is such that when the flour is turned into bread it bakes well and results in a very light, soft textured loaf with good keeping qualities which doesn't shed crumbs when sliced.
REMEMBER TO USE LESS WATER IN WHATEVER RECIPE YOU ARE SUBSTITUTING SPELT FLOUR FOR WHEAT FLOUR IN BECAUSE SPELT REQUIRES SIGNIFICANTLY LESS WATER TO MAKE A SOFT, PLIABLE DOUGH.
Due to spelt's high water solubility, the grain's vital substances can be absorbed quickly into the body. The nutrients are made available to the entire organism with a minimum of digestive work. The body cells are then nourished, strengthened, and prepared for their optimal performance while the body is flooded with vitamins and other nutritional substances. Spelt contains more protein, fats and crude fibre than wheat and also has large amounts of Vitamin B17 (anti-carcinoma). It also contains special carbohydrates which play a decisive role in blood clotting and stimulate the body's immune system so as to increase its resistance to infection.
The total protein content of spelt varies from 13.1 - 14.28% depending on climate and soil conditions. It is higher than soft wheat (10.5%) and spring wheat (9.1%) but similar to durum wheat (13.8%). The sequence of Amino acids also differs between spelt and wheat, spelt containg more cystine, isoleucine, leucine, methionine and neurotransmitters, phenylalanine and tryptophane.
A comparison of amino acids between wheat and spelt is as follows:
|Amino Acids mg/g fresh weight||Wheat||Spelt|
In comparison with other grains spelt has generally more vitamins and basic minerals.
|Average mg/100 grams||Barley||Rye||Wheat||Oats||Spelt|
Sources: product analysis souci, milupa (11. 11.88) and SCI-TEK Lab.
* Analytical information from
The Wonder Food Spelt by Dr WIGHARD STREHLOW
As the genetic makeup of spelt is different to wheat, it is a grain that many people who are sensitive or allergic to wheat can use. Spelt does contain gluten but overseas studies have shown that it can be tolerated by many people who are normally gluten-intolerant. The reason given for this is that the larger quantities of available protein found in spelt are soluble and, therefore, can be easily assimilated by the body with the minimum of digestive work. Results of routine allergy testing in both the US and the UK has also shown that when many wheat sensitive individuals are exposed to both wheat and spelt the majority react negatively to the wheat sample only. Having said this, however,it must be stressed that the Coeliac Society in Australia does not include spelt on its list of approved foods and people with this condition should not eat it.
Environmental Benefits of Growing Spelt
Spelt is a relatively low yielding crop so doesn't take as much from the soil as more modern crops. It is therefore a more sustainable crop on a long term basis. Being low yielding it also thrives without the application of fertilisers even on relatively poor soils. Spelt is also very resistant to frosts and other extreme weather conditions and the grain's exceptionally thick husk protects it from pollutants and insects. As spelt is a pure, original grain and not biologically modified in any way it is very resistant to the crop diseases that often plague modern crop varieties and grows quite successfully without the application of herbicides, pesticides or fungicides.
Spelt is stored with the husk intact so it remains fresher over a much longer period than other grains. It has been claimed that spelt's hull is so strong that it can protect the grain from virtually every type of pollutant, even radioactive fallout.
Given the above attributes it may be no surprise to learn that the renaissance of spelt both overseas and in Australia has been led by organic farmers. However due to the huge upsurge in demand in more recent years some conventional farmers are now growing it as well.
Following on from the success of spelt a number of other ancient grains (einkorn, farro or emmer and khorasan) have also re-emerged on the agricultural scene. KHORASAN, also known by its trademark name of KAMUT, has, like spelt, been particularly successful as an alternative to common wheat for similar reasons to those discussed above for spelt. (See separate entry for KHORASAN)