Whole grains are in. Under the nutrition radar for decades, except in health food stores and specialty applications, whole-grain products are now featured in mainstream supermarkets, some restaurants and even in fast food establishments.
The first USDA Food Guide Pyramid in 1992 ignored any difference between whole and refined grains; they were interchangeable so long as the refined grains were enriched with thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and iron, and later folic acid. But studies began to pile up making it clear whole grains held a special place in the modern diet, even as they had before we became so modern.
“Whole grain ingredients impart unique color, taste and textures not traditionally accepted by consumers,” says Darren Schubert, vice president of sales and marketing-western operations for Grain Miller, Inc. (www.grainmillers.com), Eugene, Ore. “However, consumers are now demanding whole grain nutrition that tastes good. The challenge now is to incorporate whole grain ingredients into existing ‘consumer desirable’ formulas while maintaining texture, flavor, shelf life stability and organoleptic profiles of existing branded goods.”
Genesis of a revolution
Ironically, whole grains launched the first great revolution in nutrition when Christiaan Eijkman was commissioned to travel to Malaysia in 1897 to determine the micro-organism that caused beri beri. His conclusion was the lack of a never-before-conceived-of “vital amine,” later to be described as thiamin, present in whole grain rice. This led to the micronutrient era when vitamins and minerals were added to proteins, fats and carbohydrates as dietary essentials.
It was the stuff of legend and Nobel prizes in nutrition lore, as one by one deficiency diseases such as pellagra, anemia, rickets, scurvy, even some forms of blindness fell to the painstaking diligence of biochemists, who identified the necessity of miniscule amounts of compounds unknown only decades before.
Grains are in effect grass seeds or fruits that store energy as starch. Whole grains retain the bran, a tight coating surrounding the seed and the germ and the source of nutrients for the growing sprout. Most of the germ and bran are removed during the milling process. Stripping the starchy endosperm of essential fatty acids and other critical nutrients that could oxidize gives the “white” flour a longer shelf life and fewer off flavors.
We became so accustomed to the soft texture of highly refined grains that tougher breads and cereals were not so appealing. There were notable exceptions. General Mills’ Wheaties, “Breakfast of Champions,” was highly promoted in the 1950s by Bob Richards, two-time olympic gold medalist and first athlete to appear on the coveted cover of the Wheaties box. His message was simple: “There’s a whole kernel of wheat in every Wheaties flake.”
Quaker Oatmeal, a source of whole grain oats, has been a consistent staple on grocery shelves for decades. Nevertheless, whole grains stayed in the background as specialty items. Wheat germ was sold as a dietary supplement, and bran cereals were only marketed to keep consumers regular.
Long before USDA recognized whole grains for their specific health benefits, Americans were being primed for a whole-grain surge by a number of farsighted companies for which whole grains were a passion, part of a holistic health philosophy. Eden Foods Inc. (www.edenfoods.com), Clinton, Mich., in 1968 began with group of friends motivated by an interest in macrobiotics. The company was based on the use of whole grains, plant-based protein and locally grown food.
“Eden offers 100 percent whole-grain pastas in a variety of grains and cuts,” says Carrie Burdzinski, spokesperson for Eden Foods. “All of the grains are grown organically on USA family farms, and all of the pastas are traditionally crafted in small batches. Eden has found consumers are accepting of whole grains, and they are showing increased interest in whole grain products.”
Eden combines kamut, an African grain, and quinoa, a highly nutritious grain from Peru, into a pasta called Twisted Pair. Another noodle is Spelt Ribbons. For a canned beans and rice product, Eden chose to feature (and name) whole grain rice from Lundberg Rice (www.lundberg.com), Richvale, Calif. The Lundberg family has been providing several varieties of organic rice since 1937 and has a following.
French Meadow Bakery (www.frenchmeadow.com), Minneapolis, began in 1985 as a vision of Lynn Gordon, whose passion for macrobiotics and natural cooking methods led her to create what is now advertised as “the longest continuously running certified organic bakery in the U.S.” French Meadow’s whole grain offerings include such unique items as Healthy Hemp Bread, Men’s Bread, Woman’s Bread and Healthseed Spelt Bread, along with cookies, cakes and desserts, all of which now appear in most supermarkets. Most of these breads include sprouted grains.