Freekeh, sometimes called farik, is wheat that is harvested while the grain is young and green. Roasted over an open fire, the straw and chaff are burned and then rubbed off. The grain left on the inside is too young and moist to burn, so what you’re left with is a firm, slightly chewy grain with a distinct earthy, nutty and slightly smoky flavour.

Described as a ‘new’ ancient grain – it has been a staple in Middle Eastern diets for centuries – freekeh has recently started surging in popularity in Western markets, fuelled in part by the burgeoning interest in whole and ancient grains.

Nutritional boosters: a solid place in the market

As the strong trend for superfoods – which can help to combat health ailments such as diabetes and obesity – continues, freekeh’s place in the health food market looks set to strengthen. The nutritional and health values of young green grains harvested before maturity and processed into freekeh have helped the grain to gain popularity across the globe.

 But what makes freekeh different from other whole grains? The fact that the wheat is harvested early allows it to preserve the highest level of nutrition and taste; the grain contains more protein, vitamins and minerals than the mature variety of the same grain.

Serving for serving, freekeh has more protein and twice much fibre as quinoa, as well as almost one third of the fat content. The grain is also high in iron, calcium and zinc; acts as a probiotic promoting the growth of good gut bacteria; and is low on the glycaemic index, which is beneficial for those trying to manage diabetes or keep their blood sugar steady.

Research carried out on the grain by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) confirmed that the grain is very helpful in managing diabetes. It also showed that, compared to similar diets, the diet containing freekeh showed differences in metabolic and bacteriological rates associated with a reduced risk of developing some generative bowel diseases, including colorectal cancer.

It’s one downside? While it nutritionally dominates most other grains on the market, unlike quinoa, freekeh is not gluten-free.

Around the world: soaring in popularity

Demand for freekeh in the US really kicked off in 2011, after Oprah nominated freekeh as “one of four exotic grains that can improve health,” alongside faro (rich in vitamins B, E and magnesium), amaranth (contains lysine, an amino acid that the body needs for tissue repair) and chia (one of the richest plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids).

The grain was also championed by popular TV medical expert Dr Oz, who lauded freekeh as a superfood. And, though slightly behind the US in jumping on the freekeh bandwagon, in the UK Yotam Ottolenghi has claimed that he is addicted to the grain, while Jamie Oliver is also a fan.

Earlier this year, Israel-based producer Fire Grain launched its freekeh brand in the UK. Their freekeh originates from the Galilee Region, where it was first discovered, grown and harvested over 2,000 years ago. According to the company, the freekeh is still produced in the traditional way; tending the same fields in the Galilee and then burning the green wheat before rubbing it clean to bring out the health benefits and smoky taste of the ancient grain.

Freekeh down under: unique processing techniques

However, while the UK has only recently experienced this newfound love for the ancient grain, Australia-based Greenwheat Freekeh has been commercially producing the ancient superfood in South Australia since 1997.

The company’s unique processing technique, invented by managing director Tony Lutfi, has enabled its production to grow to more than 500 tonnes a year – and Lutfi has plans to expand production at his plant north of Adelaide to a whopping 3,000 tonnes per year by 2018.

Greenwheat Freekeh exports its produce to 17 countries, including the US, Canada, the UK, Spain and Brazil, and last year began shipping freekeh to Japan and Korea. Speaking to foodmag.com.au in September 2016, Lutfi said that the increased demand from Asia – and in particular Korea – came out of the blue; the promotion of freekeh on the Korean Food Channel led to an initial 168,000 orders, before demand really began to soar.

“They bring in celebrities, chefs and nutritionists and they sit down and talk about freekeh and consumers call up and place orders,” Lutfi was quoted as saying. “The Korean market is incredible, it is doing things for us that we never would have imagined.”

The company’s world-first process captures and retains the benefits of green grains, and can be used to produce different types of freekeh from different varieties of grain – all with distinctive tastes, nutritional values and applications. It uses fire and air at precise temperatures and sequences to immobilise growth enzymes in the green grain to capture and retain the grain at a stage of maturity when it is at peak taste and nutrition.

Basis of healthy living: grains, seeds and pulses

Back in the UK, Greenwheat Freekah has partnered with Artisan Grains to offer a new freekeh product to the British market. Established in 2012 to offer a core range of grain and ‘good-for-you’ ingredients to consumers for variety and convenience, Artisan Grains now offers a range of freekeh brands – including wholegrain freekeh, greenwheat freekeh and microwave/instant grains.

Founder Sam Jacobi attributes the popularity of the freekeh grains range to timing, saying: “We were delighted at the response across the wholefood customer base. The timing was perfect since ancient grains were just beginning to be talked about in the media and by celebrity chefs, so there was natural interest in our products, and this has continued as we’ve developed the range further.”

The company’s mission sums up why freekeh – and super grains in general – is experiencing such an unprecedented wave of popularity as they state that: ‘At Artisan Grains we believe that natural foods form the basis of healthy living. We exist to introduce more consumers to healthy eating grains, seeds and pulses and to demystify, educate and encourage use.’