Farro: Ancient Grain But Should You Eat It?

by Sarah Traditional Preparation of GrainsComments: 11

finding the best farro to buy_mini

Farro is an ancient grain that is rapidly growing in popularity as more people discover that modern wheat varieties extremely high in gluten are difficult to digest. This is especially true if the wheat is not traditionally prepared via sprouting, soaking, or sour leavening.

Unfortunately, there is some confusion about whether farro is truly an unhybridized, low gluten form of wheat that those who are gluten intolerant can potentially eat without symptoms.

The problem occurs because the exact definition of farro continues to be debated. Here’s the lowdown about this ancient grain so you know how to source the best kind and understand exactly what you are getting if you choose to buy it.

What Exactly is Farro?

Maria Speck, author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals writes that the term farro is commonly used when referring to three ancient wheat varieties (not to be confused with heirloom wheat) first cultivated primarily in the Mesopotamia area of the Middle East (the Fertile Crescent) and still grown today in Italy. These ancient wheat varieties all considered to fall under the farro umbrella include:

  • farro piccolo, popularly known as einkorn
  • farro medio, popularly known as emmer (Hebrew for mother)
  • farro grande, popularly known as spelt

If you see farro at the healthfood store in a bag, know that it is typically the emmer variety and likely imported from Italy.

The confusion arises because einkorn is the only one of the three farro varieties that is completely unhybridized and still in ancient form.

Emmer and spelt, while certainly less hybridized and lower in gluten than modern wheat varieties, are hybridized nonetheless.

Even people who are knowledgeable about traditional baking with different wheat varieties get confused about farro. For example, this comment was posted on my article about how to make a sourdough starter:

I’m with you all the way until you say Einkorn is the only unhybridized flour available. It is one of the more common ones, usually lumped together with Emmer and Spelt. My severely gluten intolerant husband reacts to spelt as he does to modern wheat so I toss that one out the window.

No doubt this person is reacting to spelt because it is hybridized and even though classified as farro, cannot be compared with the digestibility and different type of gluten contained in einkorn.

The Genetics of Farro

Human consumption of wild einkorn, the most ancient of all wheat varieties and the only one of the three types of farro to remain completely unhybridized, dates back approximately 12,000 years ago to the Paleolitic Era, also referred to as the Old Stone Age (1).

Hunter-gatherers living at that time in the Fertile Crescent discovered that they could plant and cultivate the einkorn seeds they gathered for food. This marks the birth of agriculture and humans abandoning a nomadic life for the first time to settle into civilized communities.

The genetics of einkorn wheat remains wild and unchanged to this day, while all other types including the farro varieties known as spelt and emmer, were created via hybridization.

How to know that einkorn is unhybridized and spelt and emmer are not?  The evidence is in the sets of chromosomes each farro variety possesses.  Most plants are diploid, meaning they have two sets of 7 chromosomes – one from a male parent and one from a female parent.  Einkorn is a diploid (wild) wheat.

When wheat is hybridized, additional sets of (7) chromosomes are added either by man or nature. Emmer wheat appears to have been hybridized about 2,000 years after einkorn via the union of two wild grasses. This resulted in a total of 28 chromosomes. Kamut (an ancient grain found in Egyptian tombs) and durum wheat are descendants of emmer.

Spelt, the third farro variety, was the first wheat hybridization that occurred between cultivated emmer and a wild grass, creating a wheat variety with 42 chromosomes (6 sets of 7). Modern wheat varieties are descended from spelt.

Farro Hybridization Not the Same as GMO

It’s very important to understand that hybridization of a plant does not mean that it has been genetically modified.

Hybridization typically occurs through selection of desirable and inheritable characteristics that are either dominant or recessive genetic traits.

In the case of wheat, strains that are high in gluten have been favored in recent decades given that they are more desirable in food processing with the result that modern wheat is much higher in gluten than nonhybridized (wild) strains such as einkorn wheat.

Genetic modification of wheat, on the other hand, involves incorporating genes from other organisms – even animals, bacteria or viruses – into plants. In short, hybrid wheat is not GMO wheat. As of this writing, GMO wheat is not being legally cultivated anywhere in the world.

What Type of Farro is Best?

Now that you know about the three types of farro, einkorn, emmer and spelt, which is most desirable to eat?

In my view, einkorn is the clear winner, and the ancient wheat that I choose to buy and use in my home because it is the only farro variety that is still in a truly ancient state. Being in the wild state as it was originally 12,000 years ago during the Paleolithic Era means that einkorn is naturally low in gluten. Not only is einkorn low in gluten, the gluten is different from the gluten molecules present in the other two farro varieties: emmer and spelt.

The gluten in einkorn wheat lacks the high molecular weight gluten proteins that many people find hard to digest. In fact, it could be said that the gluten in einkorn is good gluten because many folks who are gluten intolerant easily digest it! 

Source: Journal of European Food and Research Technology (2009) 229:523–532

Note that einkorn would not be appropriate for those with Celiac disease.

Eat Your Farro, But Be Selective About It

Because the term “farro” can refer to any one of three different varieties of ancient wheat, only one of which is truly unhybridized, it is best to buy wheat labeled as einkorn and not just farro. Buying a bag of farro, as mentioned above, usually means you are buying emmer, not einkorn.

Another problem with buying farro at the store is that the label doesn’t tell usually tell you if the farro is whole, semipearled (part of the bran removed) or pearled (no bran at all). In my experience, buying whole farro labeled as einkorn is the best way to go because all the nutrients are retained this way. In addition, when you grind einkorn, it is a much lighter and whiter flour even in its whole grain state than modern wheat, spelt, or emmer. There really isn’t any need to use semipearled or pearled farro when you are choosing the unhybridized einkorn variety.

Making Farro Fit the Budget

No doubt about it, farro is expensive. It is a low yield crop compared with modern wheat, and the price is indicative of this.

Because einkorn is the only type of farro I use in my home, I was excited to discover that my source of organic einkorn is now available in a 10 lb bag, which is much more cost effective than the 16 ounce bags I’ve been using for many years.

If I was unable to find a source of organic einkorn, my next choice would be emmer because the hybridization occurred between two wild grasses.

What source of farro do you prefer? Have you found it to be more digestible than modern forms of wheat?

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

 

More Information

The Four Reasons Why I Switched to Einkorn Wheat
The Good Gluten You Can Probably Eat Just Fine
European Food and Research Technology (2009) 229:523–532
The Real Reason Wheat is Toxic (it’s not the gluten)
Einkorn Sourdough Crackers with Nut Butter
Tiny Teff Grains Deliver Big on Nutrition

Comments (11)

  • WebHong

    Farro is really nice. I love it!

    June 19th, 2015 10:06 am Reply
  • Anna

    Our family has been using organic sprouted spelt flour for a while and have come to love the texture and its digestibility compared to wheat. Is this substitute suitable or should we be looking to transition to einkorn? We follow the WAPF diet.

    June 10th, 2015 10:53 am Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      It’s really a personal preference. What you are doing is fine. If you digest the sprouted spelt well, then stick with it. You may wish to give einkorn a try though just to compare. We tried it and totally fell in love with it.

      June 10th, 2015 12:14 pm Reply
  • Deesje

    Farro is amazing, thanks for sharing this article.

    June 9th, 2015 6:51 am Reply
  • anon

    I would have to say that our modern wheat is basically GMO. Maybe not in the sense of shooting in soil bacteria and antibiotic marker genes with a special type of gun in a lab. But the fact that our modern wheat was exposed to extremely high pulses of radiation repeatedly in order to induce random changes, and then the wheat that was changed in a way that was desired was selected and bred, I’d say that’s pretty abnormal, and is not just plain ol “hybridization”. Thanks for pointing out the origin of kamut. So Kamut is even more hybridized than spelt? Where does rye fit in? Thank you

    June 5th, 2015 4:59 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      If you judge the hybridization of wheat based on the number of sets of chromosomes, then yes, kamut would be less hybridized than spelt. I have not researched rye as extensively as wheat because my family really doesn’t eat it (we don’t like it much), but it is my understanding that it has not been hybridized to the extent that wheat has. Rye does have gluten in it, however. According to the WAPF, it is a good idea to inspect and clean rye that you plan to grind for your own flour at home because rye is susceptible to a fungal infestion called ergot.

      June 5th, 2015 5:28 pm Reply
  • Laurie

    Where would Red Fife fit in with these wheats? We can get that here. But we also have Daybreak Mill here in Saskatchewan 3 -4 hours away and they grow the Einkorn. So I have lately just been trying the Einkorn out and it seems to be working for me.

    Good post!

    June 5th, 2015 4:05 pm Reply
  • Chris

    Do you have a good source for recipes using Einkorn? Do you use it alone or do you mix it with other types of flour? Have you ever used it to make Sourdough? Do you know if you can use it to make a sourdough starter?
    I love your site. So informative. THX

    June 5th, 2015 3:03 am Reply
  • Sarah

    Hi Sarah,
    Do you prepare einkorn with sprouting, sourdough or soaking in your home, or do you just grind it fresh and use it in baking without the traditional methods of preparation since it is more easily digestible?

    June 4th, 2015 11:39 pm Reply
    • Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

      It depends. If I’m baking cookies for a party, for example, I will just use freshly ground einkorn flour as many coming to the party aren’t used to the slightly different taste/consistency of sprouted flour.

      If what I’m making is for my own family only, I use sprouted or soaked einkorn.

      June 5th, 2015 9:12 am Reply

Leave a Comment