Food Facts: What is Kernza?

Kernza is a new type of grain that grows differently than traditional wheat, which could lead to environmental benefits.

What makes it different? Kernza is a perennial that lives for several years. Wheat, in comparison, is an annual crop that farmers typically plant in the fall. It is harvested in the summer when the grain is ripe and the plants die. Each year, new seed is planted.

Kernza is not a strain or species of wheat, but a registered trade name owned by The Land Institute for a type of intermediate wheatgrass, a wild relative of annual wheat. The seed is planted and farmers harvest the grain, but the plant continues to live in the soil and produce a crop every year.

Why is it important? Researchers developed Kernza to capture the environmental benefits of perennials. The roots of a Kernza plant grow 10 feet into the soil, much deeper than annual wheat. Those deeper roots allow the plant to store nutrients, resist drought and reduce soil erosion. Kernza can both protect the soil while producing food for people to eat.

How does it taste? The grain has a sweet, nutty flavor making it a good fit for cereals and snacks. The kernel is smaller than wheat and has more bran and fiber, but fewer carbohydrates.

When will it be available? General Mills announced that it will be using Kernza in some of its Cascadia Farms organic brand cereals and snacks. The products will be on store shelves next year.

The Land Institute has been conducting research on perennial grains since the 1980s and continues to work with the goal of developing varieties of Kernza that are economical for farmers to grow on a large scale. They expect the first Kernza variety will be widely available by 2019.

Where can you buy it? Kernza is available in a few specialty products now. Patagonia Provisions produces a beer called Long Root Ale which is sold on the West Coast. Chefs in the Minneapolis area, where Kernza is grown in test plots, have made pasta, tortillas and muffins. The Perennial restaurant in San Francisco serves Kernza bread and crackers.

Kernza is a new grain that has the potential to change how farmers grow crops. “Kernza is among the first of a range of new perennial crops in development that together are expected to build soil, improve wildlife habitat, protect water and provide abundant nutritious food. Over a few more decades of research and development, dedicated global partnerships will make this vision a tangible reality. Already the first fields now yielding Kernza perennial grain and the food and farming innovators working with the grain promise great things to come,” the Land Institute told us.

Photo Credit: The Land Institute