In the years following Atkins, whole grains went from benchwarmer to game changer.
When it comes to whole grains, American consumers are expanding their vision, says Judi Adams, president of the Grain Foods Foundation and Wheat Foods Council, Ridgway, Colo. It’s hardly surprising, given these health-oriented times, but from where did this whole grain trend spring?
“Oddly enough, the low-carb craze of the early 2000s set the stage,” explains Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways/The Whole Grains Council. “The South Beach Diet, for instance, advised people to cut way back on grains–but told them to make sure to eat whole grains whenever they did eat grains. Then in January 2005, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for the first time said, ‘Make at least half your grains whole,’ and a week later we introduced the Whole Grain Stamp to give consumers the easy tool they needed to follow that rule.”
An array of wholesale bakers are on top of the trend, offering crackers and cookies made with not just wheat, but also with what are usually still considered nonmainstream or alternative grains, Adams says.
“I’ve been served quinoa on airplanes and in restaurants,” she says, “so I know that’s starting to become more mainstream.”
Harriman also has observed the rise of formerly obscure grains like quinoa.
“Quinoa has been the big darling the last couple of years. It was everywhere when I spoke at a conference in Paris two years ago–and people actually know how to pronounce it now.”
In fact, Harriman adds, quinoa has entered the mainstream so successfully that she’s heard people already anointing the popular grain’s successor.
“I was at the Research Chefs Association conference two weeks ago,” she says, “and one of the chefs there told me he thought ‘amaranth would be the new quinoa.’”
It’s a meteoric climb for a grain that just a decade ago bore the status of a “crunchy” food.
“I think a lot of this interest has been born by the fact Americans eat these grains at restaurants and want to eat them at home and buy foods made with them at the grocery store,” Adams says. Many Americans are already familiar with whole wheat products such as crackers, bread, and pasta and are not afraid of moving beyond wheat into other whole grains, she adds.
They’re also checking out the health benefits of those alternative grains. The Wheat Foods Council has found that amaranth and quinoa are the more popular of these alternative grains because they’re high in protein and in the amino acid lysine. They’re also gluten-free, an important consideration for those with celiac disease or who are sensitive to gluten. Some may argue that whole grains–especially exotic grains–are just a passing consumer fancy, but many in the industry are convinced this is a permanent change.
“Whole grains are here to stay,” says Kimberly Keller, marketing manager at Cargill, Minnetonka, Minn. “Consumers are becoming more conscious of ways they can easily improve their nutrition and appear to be motivated to make whole grains a lasting part of their diet.” She points out the emphasis on whole grains in the latest dietary guidelines as added evidence that whole grains are becoming a permanent fixture.
Right now, Erin Baker and her crew are at work in their test kitchen, working on a few new cookie and cereal product lines, to be formulated with quinoa and chia. Baker is chief executive officer of Erin Baker’s Wholesome Baked Goods, Bellingham, Wash., which makes breakfast cookies, mini breakfast cookies, brownie bites and organic granola. The products are formulated with whole food ingredients, including whole grain oats, flax, fruit purée and honey. After conducting a round of market research, Baker would like to include quinoa in that list, which could play a role in many whole grain applications.
Work continues in the test kitchen–as of yet, her staff has run into no particular issues with the quinoa inclusion, though she faces the same challenges with any newly formulated products as she does with her current line.
“They’ll still be whole, and the more whole and live the less shelf life you have,” Baker says. “That’s the crux of our challenge because our U.S. distribution system is set up to where distributors and retailers are saying the minimum shelf life for your product is six months, and they’d like to see 12 months.”
All whole grain products have shorter shelf lives than similar products made with refined flour, Baker says.
“Whole grains are less refined and more live, and they degenerate quicker than refined grains, and in most cases they mold, and you see the breakdown of the whole ingredient,” Baker says. “With highly refined grains, all the live food has been refined out of it so it can sit on the shelf for years.”
Her bakery’s distribution is challenging because of that issue. The breakfast cookies have a 90-day shelf life. The packaging helps the cookies stay fresh that long, though some flavors may have a shorter lifespan, depending on ingredients. The organic brownie bites and breakfast cookie minis have a four-month shelf life.
“Our 90-day shelf life for breakfast cookies is like grocery suicide,” Baker says. “The retailer or distributor will say, ‘that’s not enough time for us.’ With oats as the primary ingredient, there’s no getting around it. So we have to work with retailers that will accept that shelf life, and we have to guarantee the sale.”
It can be costly to promise a product’s freshness or offer a monetary guarantee in exchange. But, Baker says, she’s pursuing her passion, and she has no plans to abandon whole grain products. In fact, over the past few years, she’s seen an increasing number of large bakers moving to whole grain products as more Americans seek out unrefined grains. She attributes this change to media coverage of the obesity epidemic and to Michael Pollan’s writings on the food system and American eating habits.
With such interest growing, bakers have started looking for even more ways to feature multiple grains in their products and to introduce consumers to new whole grains, says Elizabeth Arndt, director of research and development at ConAgra Mills, Omaha, Neb.
“How do you up the ante on the number of grains in multigrain products when you already have five-, seven-, nine-, and 12-grain products?” she asks.
To help answer the question, ConAgra introduced a line of ancient grain flours. The line features amaranth, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff. The products in the line, which also includes a five-grain whole grain flour, are gluten-free, Arndt says. Other blends include a nine-grain that also includes rye, oats and whole wheat white flour, as well as an eight-grain and seed mixture with crushed wheat, barley flakes, flax and sunflower seeds. The latter two are not made up exclusively of ancient grains, nor are they certified gluten-free, although they will appeal to bakers looking to move to nine- or 12-grain products, Arndt says. Custom blends also are available, including those made with chia, which is actually a seed.
“You do tend to see the ancient grains used more in products making some kind of whole grain claim, but the tricky part about multigrain is it doesn’t necessarily mean whole grain,” she says.
The grains that fall into this category for ConAgra have been in use for thousands of years, Arndt says. Although they’ve been less changed by modern plant-breeding practices than some of their grain counterparts, they have changed over the years. Amaranth was eaten by the Aztecs, quinoa by the Incans. And teff is an Ethiopian staple–the grain is the main ingredient in injera, the sour, fermented flatbread eaten across that country, Arndt says. Bakers can take advantage of these tie-ins when marketing their products, she says.
Wholesale bakers are already incorporating ancient grains into their products. For instance, Oroweat produces a whole wheat, ancient grain bread, made with quinoa. Pepperidge Farm makes Vitality multigrain with ancient grains bread. Other bakers offer loaves with spelt, which they consider to be an ancient grain, as the term isn’t standardized.
“When you come right down to it, all grains are ancient–except triticale, a hybrid invented in the 20th century,” Harriman explains. “I think consumers are interested in all foods with a story, and ancient grains and their stories help us connect with our food.”
Aside from bread, these grains can be used in any number of baked products, from yeast-leavened rolls and in chemically leavened products like muffins and cookies, says Harold Ward, manager of technical services at ConAgra Mills.
Formulation and the future
Bakers will need to make adjustments to their formulas when working with these grains. When any whole grain is used as an ingredient, formulation changes may include increased water levels and addition of structure-building ingredients, such as vital wheat gluten or oxidizing agents, Ward adds.
All whole grains vary in terms of water absorption, flavor, and how they brown, Arndt says.
“You have to treat them differently than refined flour,” she emphasizes.
Harriman agrees wholeheartedly.
“Invest in R&D to do proper reformulation,” she advises. “You can’t just take out the white flour and other refined ingredients, stick whole grains in and expect success. I would also advise developing new products using whole grains, instead of trying to take popular successful products and make them ‘the same’ only with whole grain. That way, the consumer’s first bite has no suitcase full of expectations weighing it down.”
When working with ancient grains, Arndt suggests bakers begin adding about 10 to 15 percent of the grain to a longstanding formula, although some formulations work with up to 25 percent. She also recommends working with the blended grains available until a satisfactory product is reached.
“Any time you’re formulating a bread with non-wheat grains, you may have to adjust some other ingredients, pay attention to the mix time, absorption, and you may need more gluten and other functional ingredients,” Arndt says. “You may need to change the baking parameters to control browning. You’d do the same things if you’re making a bread with barley or other multigrains that are non-wheat.”
As for the future, Arndt expects to see bakers marketing these new grains either by tying in their history or by playing up unique flavor profiles. For instance, teff’s flavor has a hint of molasses, which may appeal to consumers looking for a lightly sweetened product. She also expects to see bakers highlighting the various nutritional profiles of the grains. For example, quinoa and amaranth are higher in protein as compared to wheat and other cereal grains. Also, amaranth, quinoa and teff are higher in mineral content as compared to wheat, and amaranth contains more iron and magnesium.
“So these are some of the other traits that could be taken advantage of, as well as the flavor and unique appeal,” she says.
Still, she doesn’t expect to see any of the newcomers to the whole grains field replacing the popularity of whole wheat in the coming years.
“These have been a lot of fun, trying them in different applications, but wheat isn’t going away,” Arndt says.
Indeed, bakers could see the whole grains that are relatively new to consumer palates as a complement to whole wheat as consumers look to expand their whole grain horizons.
But, Harriman warns, flavor will always be king, even in these health-centric times. “You can’t expect people to buy products just because they’re healthful,” she says. “You can’t produce something that’s unpalatable and expect people to hold their noses and eat it because it’s healthy. Everything has to be tasty. People used to think that wasn’t possible with whole grains, but that was a poor excuse for not trying. A slew of companies have now proven that talented professionals can make very delicious whole grain products.”