Healthful flour alternatives

Modern manufacturing practices are practically built around flour, making it a difficult ingredient to substitute for in the production of low-carb foods.

By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients Editor

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Though it may be on the wane, low-carbohydrate dieting undeniably has contributed to one of the greatest shifts in consumer eating habits in decades. But the ubiquity of the topic in the media and on retail shelves has been a two-edged sword. Besides motivating consumers and food marketers to pay greater attention to nutritional labels, the debate also has confused consumers immensely.

One thing is for certain: Humans are growing fatter, and the food industry has an important role in helping to curb this epidemic. The solution has the potential to address the nutritional needs not only of those battling obesity but also those struggling with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Flour is the one of the most difficult ingredients to substitute for in the production of low-carb and low-glycemic foods. Modern manufacturing practices are practically built around flour, especially refined flour, as the major ingredient for most bakery and grain-based food products.

“The modern consumer palate has become so accustomed to the taste and appearance of food products made from white or refined flour that food formulators tend to lighten and tone down the taste of whole grain products just to increase acceptance by consumers,” says Joseph Vanderliet, president of Certified Foods Inc. (www.certifiedfoods.com), San Leandro, Calif. Vanderliet’s company uses traditional stone milling equipment to produce flours that allow bakers to enhance fiber content and lower the glycemic contribution of their fare.

Healthful alternates for flour include combinations of soy or whey protein powders, flaxseed meal, soy flour and nut flour. Successfully replacing carbohydrates with fiber or other nutritive ingredients is probably more dependent upon the formulator’s familiarity with the ingredients and processes than it is on new processing technologies.

A simple content-based low-carb label is evolving into a benefits-based label, informing consumers of the health benefits they can derive from the food product. The evolving Food Guide Pyramid seems certain to suggest consumers replace simple carbohydrates in their daily diet with complex carbs, including whole grains and fibers – which are also lower in glycemic index. So, even as low-carb dieting fades, manufacturers will be seeking to replace simple carbohydrates in their formulations to produce foods that are richer in fiber and lower in glycemic value.

Taste Rules
While consumers increasingly are turning to foods to enhance their quality of life and to help prevent chronic health conditions, they still rank taste as paramount. While they may reach for foods with complex carbohydrates and fiber, taste is the reason they select one food product over another.

“Low-carb pasta products were so poorly formulated that the cooking instructions should have been: "Throw out contents and cook the package instead,’ ” laments George Munas, super center team leader for Wal-Mart (www.walmart.com). The Bentonville, Ark.-based super retailer is moving away from low-carb foods because of poor performance in this sector.

“Mass stocking of low-carb products in 2004 was largely due to consumer demand rather than instigated by manufacturers,” according to Munas. Then these very same consumers rejected poorly formulated products, leaving retailers’ shelves full.

“The quest is on for viable ways to create healthier low-carb products that don’t compromise on taste, texture or appeal,” according to Lora Ruffner, president of Low Carb Luxury, a Xenia, Ohio-based online guide to resources for low-carbohydrate dieters (www.lowcarbluxury.com). “Consumers have not given up on low-carb foods; they have simply put their foot down and insisted that manufacturers be true to health benefits and the simple pleasures of eating.”

It comes as no surprise then that savvy marketers are creating products such as Sara Lee’s Delightful line of white and wheat bread, which uses enriched white flour, cottonseed fiber and wheat gluten to produce 9 g of carbohydrates and 45 calories in every regular-sized slice. According to Frances Coletta, director of product nutrition at Sara Lee Bakery Group (www.slbg.com), St. Louis, “2005 will become the year of the whole grain.”

Modern pasta manufacturing years ago replaced traditional coarse semolina, which was naturally low in glycemic value, with finer grinds (and higher glycemic values) in order to capitalize on efficiency during hydration and drying. Consequently, pasta went from being a naturally low glycemic and diabetic-friendly food to one that was avoided by diabetics and those watching their carbohydrate intake.
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