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.

Dreamfields Foods (www.dreamfieldsfoods.com), Carrington, N.D., created a pasta with reduced glycemic index and which, most importantly, did not suffer from the poor taste and appearance of other low-carb pastas on the market.

“The Dreamfields concept is rather simple and elegant,” according to marketing director Jon Hall. “The semolina is coated with a functional film of hydrocolloids so as not to affect the taste, appearance or cooking properties of the finished product but which, when consumed, forms a viscous coating that slows the production of glucose in the small intestine. It also favors the activity of probiotic bacteria in the lower gut and the production of healthful butyrates.”

The product is sold under the name Dreamfields pasta and it also forms the basis of Inn on the Creek pasta-based dinner mixes for those counting carbohydrates.

Defatted flours from oilseeds such as sesame and flaxseed are proving to be viable alternatives for flour in artisan and low-carb breads. Sesame Flour and BenneFlax – milled sesame seed and flaxseed flours, respectively, from T.J. Harkins (www.tjharkins.com), Wooddale, Ill. -- may be used to replace flour on an equivalent volume basis or as a partial replacement along with soy flour to mask the flavor and bitter taste of the latter ingredient.

Whole-milled flaxseed is now available in more convenient and longer-lasting forms. The ingredient is nutritionally rich in protein (20 percent), dietary fiber (27 percent), omega-3s (20 percent) and polyphenolic antioxidants (2 percent), including lignan phyto-estrogens. Its mild, toasty-cereal flavor makes it an excellent substitute for flour in most cereal-based foods.

Despite its high oil content, its soluble fiber helps retain considerable moisture in bakery formulas, contributing to softening while inhibiting drying or staling. Traditionally used in bread formulations in Canada, whole-milled flaxseed is becoming more popular in the U.S. – driven in part by the low-carb revolution and more recently because of innovative processing to extend shelf stability.

Whole-milled flaxseed may be used to replace 20-30 percent of the flour in bread, rolls, pizza crust, flatbreads and tortilla formulations with the following adjustments: Use fast-acting yeast, decrease mixing times and incorporate dough conditioners to improve handling properties. Whole-milled flaxseed can replace up to 50 percent of the flour in batters or bread crumbs and not affect color or flavor negatively under deep-frying conditions.

All the benefits of soy
Even while the low-carb craze is waning, many industry experts believe the soy craze is gaining steam. Nutriant (www.nutriant.com), a Beloit, Wis.-based unit of Kerry Ingredients, is producing soy-derived ingredients to replace flour for tasty and healthful low-carb formulations. The Nutriant line of soy powders and concentrates is especially useful where protein and carbohydrate levels are critical to health benefits, functionality and taste. Nutriant flours need no masking and are therefore ideal for food companies managing nutrition for finicky eaters such as children.

Nutriant flours also are processed without chemical solvents to remove the bitterness typically associated with soy, and so are suitable for manufacturers seeking to produce natural and organic products. Offerings range from 45–65 percent protein and are available as full- or low-fat powders and may contain as much as 55 percent dietary fiber. So even small amounts provide a great deal of enhancement for pasta, snacks, pizza dough, bread, muffins and even hand-held pastries.

Other soy-based ingredients on the market today are NexSoy Extra High Fiber Low-Fat Soy Flour and Hi-Protein from Spectrum Foods Inc. (www.spectrum-foods.com), Springfield, Ill. The products have a grainy, earthy smell and no bitter taste. NexSoy is designed to replace flour and produce high-fiber and/or reduced-carb bread, cookie and bakery products. NexSoy ingredients can be incorporated at high inclusion rates without affecting flavor or texture and are available in natural, non-GMO and organic versions.

Resisting digestion
While digestion-resistant starches are found in nature, American ingenuity has commercially produced resistant starches in a number of ways for food manufacture. Resistant starches have many of the properties of the traditional starches, but do not contribute significantly to “net carbs” and are an excellent replacement for refined flour in the production of low-glycemic foods. They also improve digestive health due to their prebiotic action.

FiberSym 70 from Atchison, Kan.-based MGP Ingredients (www.mgpingredients.com) is a resistant starch developed from wheat. As a result, it carries the taste of wheat and is a natural fit for wheat flour-based product formulas. “When used to partially replace flour in bakery products, FiberSym, with approximately 70 percent digestion-resistant starch, provides clean flavor, white color and smooth, creamy texture with a nearly invisible presence in finished products,” according to marketing director Steve Ham.

Maize, which is not hybridized, is higher in fiber and has a lower glycemic value than its hybrid counterpart corn, which is higher in starch and lower in fiber. In fact, National Starch (www.nationalstarch.com), Bridgewater, N.J., derives its Hi-maize resistant starch from maize. Hi-maize provides all the health benefits of dietary fiber without changing the taste, texture or appearance of the food. The naturally derived white, resistant starch does not affect texture negatively as do many of the traditional, natural fibers and has been successfully used to lower the glycemic value of commercial grain-based foods including breads, buns, crackers and snacks.

Non-digestible hydrocolloids such as xanthan, guar and pectins are also suitable replacements for simple carbohydrates that help control moisture in soluble and non-soluble applications such as pie fillings and processed meats.

Modern manufacturing practices are practically built around flour, making it a difficult ingredient to substitute for in the production of low-carb foods.. Its solubility is excellent for the right level of thickening and managing emulsification without making the food product too thick or tasteless.

For other hydrocolloids that are difficult to dissolve or disperse in limited moisture conditions, polyols and humectants such as sorbitol and glycerin are often used to aid in dispersion.

Whole grains and fibers
Replacing refined grains with whole grains can provide a concentrated source of important nutrients and dietary fiber while also reducing the glycemic load. Educated consumers are beginning to seek out the words stone ground, whole wheat or whole grain (not whole meal) on the ingredient list of products.

But a word of caution: Just because a food is made from whole grain ingredients does not mean it is also lower in glycemic index than its counterpart made from refined ingredients. For instance, pasta made from refined traditional semolina has a lower glycemic index than whole wheat pasta. Light rye flour, cornmeal and rice flour have high glycemic values and are more likely to raise blood sugar. Plus, rice flour has virtually no dietary fiber.

Spelt is an obscure but good whole grain, low-glycemic replacement for refined flour. Spelt flour contains more protein and fiber than wheat and may substitute for whole wheat flour because it is lighter – a fact that is being capitalized on by Barilla America Inc. (www.barilla.com), Iowa City, Iowa, with its new Barilla Plus pasta.

A new line of dietary fibers from the hulls of Canadian yellow peas is another healthful alternative to refined flour in low glycemic foods. Parrheim Foods (www.parrheim.com), Winnipeg, Manitoba, has created Centara III, Centara IV and Centara 5, natural food-grade vegetable fiber products that offer an means of fiber enrichment.

GTC Nutrition (www.gtcnutrition.com), Golden, Colo., offers Natureal oat bran concentrate, which provides 15 percent oat beta-glucan for glycemic control. Natureal can be used to replace more quickly metabolized grain flours in a wide variety of applications for a minimal cost impact.

The science and art of substitution

Food formulators face daunting challenges in the current environment in which their employers are focused on replacing, reducing and eliminating many ingredients in an attempt to create “healthful foods” that appeal to consumers. But food reformulation is a complex process and requires more than simply replacing the incumbent with a new ingredient.

Seasoned formulators are cautious about suppliers’ promises of “volume for volume” or “weight for weight,” and they review each substitution in terms of its impact on functional ingredients such as texturizing, leavening and flavoring agents and quality of the end product. The key is not in finding mere equivalents for flour but to understand exactly what is happening in the food system and how best to replace all functionality and quality aspects with the replacement ingredients.

Fiber, while a nice alternative to simple carbohydrates, can greatly affect the texture of the end product because of how it interacts with water. Processing conditions can, for example, affect ingredient functionality – finer particle size can increase its affinity for water; heat treatment can decrease its affinity. Processing also can impact how the ingredient interacts with other ingredients, such as spices and flavors. Fiber of fine particle size generally requires additional spices.

Even crop conditions can affect the proportion of soluble to insoluble fibers in natural plant-based ingredients, and small shifts in these ratios can have a major impact on the formulation. Formulators also need to understand the role and status of water with the various components of dietary fiber – soluble, insoluble or colloidal – for each phase during manufacturing so as to ensure duplication at the appropriate stages and a final product that matches the traditional counterpart.

Complexity of food ingredients renders the process of formulation largely empirical and accompanied by trial and error. Ignoring this essential concept can cause tremendous failures and costly delays during reformulation. Modern reformulation calls for more than traditional bakery skills – mapping ingredient functionality and interaction with other ingredients is even more critical for successful substitution.

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