HomeProgressSpelt, the king of ancient grains. Agroecology, resilience and health

Spelt, the king of ancient grains. Agroecology, resilience and health

Spelt is the true king of ancient grains - with a history of almost 10,000 years that far exceeds that attributed to khorasan wheat, made famous by the Kamut brand - and is today the protagonist of agroecology, resilience and health. (1)

The rediscovery of the cultivar origins, which were in danger of being lost as a result of the selections made over the last few centuries to create on this basis the most widespread soft wheat today, has taken place. An insight.

1) Spelt, 10.000 years of history

Findings at several archaeological sites from the Epipaleolithic period in the Fertile Crescent (Fertile Crescent, from present-day Egypt to Turkey, and as far as Iran and Saudi Arabia, lead researchers to consider emmer and dicoccus spelt among the earliest cultivated cereals in human history.

The clearest traces date back to 7,500 B.C., in the south-east of present-day Turkey, where the cultivation of spelt reached its peak. Cultivation then declined progressively from the Bronze Age onwards. Until it remained only marginally cultivated in mountainous areas (e.g. France, Italy, Morocco, Turkey) for local consumption and use as animal feed.

2) The rediscovery of spelt in Italy

The rediscovery spelt, like other ancient grains, is thanks to the few researchers who have scoured the countryside in Central and Southern Italy in search of the original populations. Custodian farmers still cultivate spelt in hilly and mountainous areas (300-1,000 m) in Central Italy (e.g. Tuscany, Umbria, Marche) and Northern Italy (e.g. South Tyrol, Valtellina). (2)

Italy among other things, is one of the few countries where the cultivation of spelt and ancient grains has taken on real economic importance, thanks to the growing attention to both its nutritional and health properties and to agrobiodiversity and agroecology. Spelt is thus used in the production of pasta, bread and flour that are characterised by their distinctive organoleptic properties and nutraceutical functions.

3) The three spelts, botanical classification

Within the genus Triticum, spelt differs from common wheat (soft and hard) in that its caryopses are dressed ('dressed wheat'), while the ears and rachis are more fragile. Threshing operations and subsequent cleaning therefore require certain adaptations for this cereal, which is divided, botanically and genetically, into three species:

3.1) T. monococcum.

Monococcus spelt (einkorn wheat), or small spelt, is the richest of the three species in nutritional terms. It is used to produce flour and has a diploid form with seven chromosomes (2n = 2x = 14),

3.2) T. dicoccum.

dicoccum spelt (emmer wheat), or 'conventional' spelt, is the most widely cultivated species. Its grain size offers a higher yield for the same number of seeds and its productivity is higher than the other two species. It has a tetraploid form with seven chromosomes (2n = 4x = 28),

3.3) T. spelt.

Spelt (spelt), or large spelt, is the most widely used species for industrial food processing. Its form is hexaploid, with seven chromosomes (2n = 6x = 42).

4) Spelt, nutritional properties and health benefits

Compared to other cereals, spelt has an appreciable protein content (with less gluten than wheat), unsaturated fatty acids, minerals (e.g. iron, zinc) and other bioactive substances (e.g. carotenoids, tocols, phenols, phytosterols).

The reduced enzyme activity (β-amylase and lipoxygenase) also helps to preserve the shelf life of products derived from it. Dietary fibres (arabinoxylans, β-glucans, lignin) and some polyphenols in conjugated form, with associated polyphenol oxidase action, are instead present in lower quantities.

Several scientific studies (Hidalgo & Brandolini, 2013; Dhanavath & Rao, 2017; Biskup et al., 2017) characterized the composition of spelt and highlighted a series of benefits for human health associated with the consumption of products derived from it (3,4,5).

4.1) Slow digestibility of starch and glycemic control

The slow digestibility of starch and the glycaemic index are related parameters that determine the hypoglycaemic properties of a food.

Starch isolated from spelt is slowly digestible and this property may be due to both the complexity of the starch structure and the high amylose content. This starch is therefore suitable for the formulation of hypoglycaemic foods.

The inclusion of T. dicoccum (spelt) flour in the regular diet of diabetic patients for 6 weeks reduced total lipids, triglycerides and LDL-cholesterol concentrations by 11%.

4.2) Fatty acid profile and cholesterol control

The lipid profile of T. dicoccumspecifically the relationship between PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) to MUFAs (monounsaturated fatty acids), shows beneficial effects on the control of plasma and hepatic cholesterol levels.

4.3) Gluten and reduction of gastrointestinal inflammation

A diet spelt-based has been shown to reduce total lipids, triglycerides and LDL cholesterol in the blood. Spelt therefore appears to have the potential to reduce cardiovascular risk factors, although further randomised clinical trials are needed to apply for a health claim.

Feeding T. dicoccum(spelt) is recommended in the diet of wheat-sensitive individuals due to its lower gluten content. As well as in individuals with intestinal inflammation and high cholesterol. Spelt indeed appears to function as a mild but effective regulator of intestinal functions.

4.4) Reducing sugars

Some spelt varieties have a low content of total reducing sugars and a low content of monosaccharides such as glucose and fructose, which are more reactive in producing the process contaminant (genotoxic and carcinogenic) acrylamide during cooking.

4.5) Tocotrienols, polyphenols, carotenoids and antioxidant properties

Polyphenols, carotenoids and tocopherols have antioxidant properties and have been reported to be beneficial for health in the prevention of cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

The high ratio of tocopherol to tocotrienol (T3/T), in dicoccal spelt (T. dicoccum), is highlighted for its hypocholesterolemic action. Polyphenols also inhibit the activities of α-amylase and α-glucosidase, thus reducing postprandial glucose levels.

Several nutraceutical properties of spelt are attributed to its content of polyphenols and carotenoids such as lutein, zeaxanthin and β-carotene, which have various health benefits due to their antioxidant, antimicrobial and immunomodulatory properties. Lutein is reported, inter alia, to contribute favourably to eye and vision health.

5) Agrobiodiversity, agroecology and health

'Spelt is an excellent cereal with great versatility of use on marginal land. It can be grown according to agroecology, or organic farming, with modest input requirements (e.g. fertilisers) and without the need for agrochemicals. Spelt is also a very competitive species with the main weed species, so that production losses are minimised (albeit, with lower yields than common wheat).

The three spelt species are essentially destined for different uses (e.g. flour, soup, industrial use). And the small list of its varieties - compared with that of the 'great-grandson' common wheat, subject to intense genetic selection activities - confirms the 'rusticity' of spelt. Which, also for this reason, lends itself well to organic farming' (Virginia Ruspolini, agronomist and farro farmer in Umbria). (6)

6) Italian spelt, the tradition. Monteleone di Spoleto PDO and Garfagnana PGI

In Umbria, near Perugia, in Monteleone di Spoleto, spelt caryopses were found in an Etruscan tomb dating back to the 6th century BC (the 'tomb of the chariot'). Cultivation still takes place in mountainous areas (700-1000 m), on calcareous soils that prevent water stagnation in the rainy seasons. Farro di Monteleone di Spoleto PDO is an emblem of agrobiodiversity, agroecology and health. The PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) concerns the local ecotype of the Triticum dicocum species, whose grain is processed in four ways:

  • wholemeal spelt, with intact brown grains and dry texture,
  • whole spelt, without the outer husk (husk),
  • semi-pearled, with a soft consistency and a lighter colour,
  • spelt semolina, with a velvety texture and a very light brown colour. (7)

In Tuscany, in the province of Lucca, more than 50 guardian farmers protect Garfagnana PGI spelt. The three species of spelt are cultivated under the banner of agroecology and health, in hilly and mountainous areas (300-1,000 m), on land fertilised with organic substances where the use of herbicides or chemical fertilisers is strictly forbidden. Spelt cultivated using the traditional technique is in fact registered and certified as an organic product. (8)

6.1) Spelt, other Traditional Agri-Food Products in Italy

The Italian register of Traditional Agrifood Products (PAT) also censuses various spelt and products derived from it that characterise the agricultural and gastronomic history of the regions in Central and Southern Italy:

  • Abruzzo. Abruzzo spelt,
  • Campania. Sannio dicocco spelt, spelt bread and pasta,
  • Emilia-Romagna. Spelt Triticum dicoccum, Triticum dicocum,
  • Lazio. Spelt, Monti Lucretili spelt, Acquapendente spelt,
  • Marche. Farro Triticum dicoccum, Spelt, Triticum dicocum, spelt chestnut,
  • Molise. Farro dicocco molisano,
  • Tuscany. Garfagnana spelt cake, spelt cake.

7) Technological properties

Spelt, or large spelt, is used for the industrial production of various products that stand out in halo marketing, in terms of agrobiodiversity, agroecology and health. Pasta, bread, biscuits and baked goods, but also beer. Research therefore accompanies tradition in identifying the technological properties - microstructure of the endosperm, physical properties, thermal properties and specific milling energy - appreciable in view of processing. A very recent study (Warechowska et al., 2023) offers some useful insights in this regard.

Spelt cultivars are mainly distinguished, like wheat, into durum and soft. The suitability of each for the production of certain foods, rather than others, is assessed in relation to factors such as grain size and milling levels. With regard to water absorption necessary to favour the viscosity of the dough and its fermentation by yeasts. The high gelatinisation temperature, in turn, is relevant to the production process such as in the cooking of products (e.g. pasta) and their digestibility. (10)

8) Conclusion and perspectives

Agroecology and health find in spelt an ideal Liaisonthat links the oldest cereal tradition in the Mediterranean and the Mediterranean diet - with its innumerable benefits - to the Sustainable Development Goalsin the UN 2030 Agenda. The botanical attributes of emmer allow for its organic cultivation, with frugal inputsin agriculture.

Andrea Adelmo Della Penna and Dario Dongo


(1) Cooper R. (2015). Re-discovering ancient wheat varieties as functional foods. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine 5: 138-143, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtcme.2015.02.004  

(2) Zaharieva & Monneveux (2014). Cultivated einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum L. subsp. monococcum): the long life of a founder crop of agriculture. Genet. resours. Crop Evol. 61:677-706 , https://doi.org/10.1007/s10722-014-0084-7

(3) Hidalgo & Brandolini (2013). Nutritional properties of einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum L.). J. Sci. Food Agric. 94:601–612, https://doi.org/10.1002/jsfa.6382

(4) Dhanavath & Rao (2017). Nutritional and Nutraceutical Properties of Triticum dicoccum Wheat and Its Health Benefits: An Overview. Journal of Food Science 82 (10): 2243-2250, https://doi.org/10.1111/1750-3841.13844  

(5) Cookies et al. (2017). The potential role of selected bioactive compounds from spelled and common wheat in glycemic control. Adv. Clin. Exp. Med. 26(6):1013–1019, https://doi.org/10.17219/acem/61665

(6) The list of plant varieties is available at https://www.sian.it/mivmPubb/autenticazione.do, the list of varieties allowed in organic farming on https://www.sian.it/conSpeBio/index.xhtml

(7) Farro della Garfagnana PGI, production specification https://www.politicheagricole.it/flex/cm/pages/ServeAttachment.php/L/IT/D/2%252Fb%252F3%252FD.868f862798f5b978962c/P/BLOB%3AID%3D3343/E/pdf?mode=download

(8) Farro di Monteleone di Spoleto DOP, production specification https://www.politicheagricole.it/flex/cm/pages/ServeAttachment.php/L/IT/D/1%252F7%252F6%252FD.9f7260f960607e310403/P/BLOB%3AID%3D3343/E/pdf?mode=download

(9) National list of traditional agri-food products, 22nd revision (2022). https://www.politicheagricole.it/flex/cm/pages/ServeAttachment.php/L/IT/D/1%252F5%252F8%252FD.f85e9e7414e48e0c2722/P/BLOB%3AID%3D17979/E/pdf?mode=download

(10) Warechowska et al. (2023) The endosperm microstructure, physical, thermal properties and specific milling energy of spelt (Triticum aestivum ssp. spelta) grain and flour. Scientific Reports 13: 3629, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-30285-9

Andrea Adelmo Della Penna
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Graduated in Food Technologies and Biotechnologies, qualified food technologist, he follows the research and development area. With particular regard to European research projects (in Horizon 2020, PRIMA) where the FARE division of WIISE Srl, a benefit company, participates.

+ posts

Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.

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