updated 8/9/2006 12:38:02 PM ET 2006-08-09T16:38:02

Amid the aisles of spaghetti and canned peas, cereals and breads made with mysterious-sounding grains like amaranth and quinoa are sprouting up at major supermarkets.

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Wheat is still king of this country’s whole grains, but the appearance of such alternatives indicates consumers are beginning to expand a niche market once relegated to the obscure corners of health food stores.

“People are realizing there’s a benefit to eating a diversity of grains — and these grains have some incredible nutritional properties,” said Carole Fenster, an author of numerous cookbooks that incorporate wheat-free grains.

New federal guidelines recommending three servings of whole grains a day have put a spotlight on wheat, but exposure to barley, brown rice and other options has also grown, said Alice Lichtenstein, chair of the nutrition committee at the American Heart Association.

According to the marketing information company ACNielsen, sales of products with whole grain claims on their packages for the year ending April 22 increased 9.5 percent from the previous year.

Wheat free grains skyrocket
NuWorld Amaranth, one of the country’s main buyers of amaranth, reported a 300 percent increase in sales in the past three years. Bob’s Red Mill, which sells alternative wheat-free grains, saw a 25 percent increase in sales in the past year, with quinoa driving the bulk of the growth.

Amaranth, grown for millennia by the Aztecs, has twice as much iron as wheat and is higher in protein and fiber. Quinoa, an ancient Andean crop, has less fiber but more protein and iron than wheat.

It may take some time for the unfamiliar grains to find broad acceptance. The American palate is still adjusting to whole wheat, and amaranth’s distinct, slightly nutty taste could take some getting used to.

Gluten-caused celiac disease
One reason for the fledgling demand is a growing awareness of celiac disease, which is triggered by gluten, the protein found in wheat. Symptoms range from severe cramping to chronic fatigue and even organ disorders. The condition is believed to affect about 2 million Americans, with others sensitive to the protein.

There is also a growing crossover market of health-conscious shoppers in search of the most nutritious grains, said Diane Walters, spokeswoman for NuWorld.

ConAgra Mills is working with farmers to expand the supply of sustagrain, a type of barley with a 30 percent fiber content, said Don Brown, vice president of business development at the company.

While products made entirely of amaranth and quinoa may not hit the mainstream anytime soon, the demand for such grains as ingredients will likely get a boost as multigrain products proliferate, said Robert Myers, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute, a research center in Columbus, Mo.

“Once they get past corn, wheat and oats, they’ll eventually get around to picking up grains like amaranth,” he said.

A limited supply
Alternative grains also benefit from the popularity of organic goods, Fenster said — Whole Foods even has a line of bakery goods devoted to gluten-free diets.

“As people go into those stores, they can’t help but notice those products,” she said.

Supply of some alternative grains is still limited, however. Estimates of U.S. farmland devoted to amaranth, for example, range from 1,000 acres to 3,000 acres — compared with 50 million acres for wheat, according to the Thomas Jefferson Institute.

But the supply of white wheat in the country was also limited until Sara Lee recently launched its white wheat bread, said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition at the Whole Grains Council. To ensure adequate supply, ConAgra began contracting with farmers about five years before the product launch.

The same thing could happen for other grains that are easy and inexpensive to grow, Myers said.

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