The Evolving Whole Grain

As grain processing and consumer tastes progress, processors answer with new products.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

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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.

The pioneers
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.

Food for Life Baking Co. (www.foodforlife.com), Corona, Calif., had its beginning in Glendale, Calif., in the back of a neighborhood natural foods store known as Foods for Life Natural Foods. Its early claim-to-fame was the development of the first sprouted grain flourless breads, where the whole grains were allowed to sprout before being ground to make bread. There are now more than 60 Food for Life bread products.

 

The interest in whole grains also is sparking consumer curiosity into unusual grains.
One of the pioneers in whole grains, Kashi has taken its original seven-grain formula into several product categories.

In 1984, the Kashi Co. (www.kashi.com), La Jolla, Calif., created its trademark Seven Whole Grains & Sesame blend, which is still in most of its products. The blend includes hard red winter wheat, long grain brown rice, oats, barley, triticale, rye, buckwheat and sesame seeds.

The first product was a pilaf, a blend of minimally processed, raw Seven Whole Grains & Sesame sold to health spas and even served at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It became popular with athletes, post-cardiac rehab patients, people with diabetes and weight management clinicians, as well as vegetarians and animal rights activists.

Revolution II
Despite the success of some whole-grain pioneers, it would take a second micronutrient revolution to ensure whole grains were worth a second look -- especially when studies on prevention of colon cancer using fiber turned out to be disappointing. That revolution involved phytochemicals, an ever-growing list of compounds found in many whole foods that provided an additional line of defense against many modern ailments.

In whole grains, phytochemicals such as lignans, flavonoids and saponins, phenolic acids, phytoestrogens and others improved risk factors for major diseases, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Whole grains weren’t merely a source of fiber or selected vitamins that could be replaced by a supplement, they were whole foods, where the whole was greater than the sum of their parts.

It meant that food formulators couldn’t assemble a whole grain — no substitutes would do. Recommendations had to change.

The most recent food pyramid -- Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January 2005 by the USDA -- encourages all Americans over 2 years old to eat at least three 1-oz.-equivalent servings of whole grains each day, or about half of the overall recommended five to 10 daily servings of grains. This is the first time the Dietary Guidelines have had specific recommendations for whole grain consumption.

How have Americans responded to the new recommendations, and has it made a difference in our health? “Americans are definitely on the whole grains bandwagon,” says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways/The Whole Grains Council (www.wholegrainscouncil.org), Boston.

According to the ‘2008 Food and Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes toward Food, Nutrition and Health’ from IFIC [International Food Information Council], published just last month (http://www.ific.org/research/foodandhealthsurvey.cfm), 78 percent of consumers are trying to eat more whole grains. This is up from 71 percent in 2007.”

Since the increase in whole grain consumption related to this recommendation has only been taking place since 2005, it’s hard to point to specific statistics that confirm health benefits. “We do, however have studies that show that increasing whole grain consumption can cause a speedy improvement in health,” says Harriman.

“One of my favorite studies was that done at Penn State recently [published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Jan 2008; volume 87(1): 79-80]. In this study, 50 obese adults were put on a reduced calorie diet for 12 weeks, during which time half the group was asked to eat all their grains as whole grains, and the other half was advised to avoid whole-grain foods. Body weight, waist circumference and percentage body fat decreased significantly in both groups, but the whole grain group saw a significantly greater decrease in abdominal fat, and a 38 percent decrease in C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammatory marker for cardiovascular disease,” says Harriman.

Milling evolves
In order for whole grains to make a significant difference, they have to become staple items of the diet, replacing a significant portion of the white flours that have dominated for decades. Many food manufacturers quickly responded to the new guidelines, or even anticipated the new potential dietary trends.

For example, in 2004, General Mills aired television ads prior to the release of the new dietary guidelines that announced plans to move to whole-grain formulations in all its cereals. That same year, ConAgra introduced Ultragrain White Whole Wheat Flour. Using a patent-pending milling process that delivers whole grain flour with the same particle size as traditional refined white flour, ConAgra enables bakers and other processors to turn out whole-grain products with the taste, smooth texture and appearance of refined white flour.

The Ultragrain milling process retains the fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and other phytochemicals that are normally concentrated within the bran and germ. Both the refining process and the less commonly used wheat (hard-white winter) are keys. This product holds the promise of attracting consumers who previously have shown no interest in whole grains, regardless of what the studies indicate.

 

FutureCeuticals’ AncientTrim mix of “ancient” grains (amaranth, barley, buckwheat, durum, chia, quinoa, spelt, and millet) can fit into a variety of applications.

Grain processing must evolve from classical milling into specific whole-grain treatments, according to Grain Miller’s Shubert. These include stabilization of the highly unstable oil-containing tissues to textural treatments that improve mouth feel and flavor. Whole-grain ingredients properly designed can take on forms such as flakes, nuggets, flours and meals that positively affect rheology, water activity, manufacturing yields and shelf-life.

A new entry in the field is AncientTrim from FutureCeuticals (www.futureceuticals.com) Momence, Ill. A mix of “ancient” grains (amaranth, barley, buckwheat, durum, chia, quinoa, spelt, and millet), it can fit into a variety of applications, from smoothies to bars to baked goods. “AncienTrim appeals to consumers desiring greater diversity in their diet and wanting to move beyond wheat,” says Hartley Pond, vice president of technical sales at FutureCeuticals. “Today’s consumer recognizes the value of a broad spectrum of whole-grain carbohydrates in their diet.

“With wheat making up 70 percent of America's grain diet, we are denying ourselves the benefits of including nutrition our ancestors enjoyed,” he continues. “With AncienTrim, we are rediscovering the valuable nutrition found in other grains beyond wheat, including a broader amino acid profile and vitamin and mineral content.”

Bridging the gap between traditional whole grains and those products consumers are used to may drive more food chains into the whole grain business. “Many fast-food chains are already beginning to offer whole grains,” says Harriman of Oldways. “Food can be fast and affordable as well as healthy and delicious, as these restaurants demonstrate. Probably the best example is Papa John’s new option of a 100 percent whole-wheat pizza crust on any pizza.” Pond agrees: “Fast-food restaurants have been in the process of reinventing themselves to provide a healthier and more diverse menu.”

The whole-grain movement is here to stay. No doubt it will take time for some consumers to adapt, but the transition tools in the form of new products are increasingly becoming part of standard menus.


Note to Marketing
 
The new generation of whole-grain products means whole grains can become part of any menu. Merely announcing “whole grain” on your packaging is a powerful attraction.

But it doesn’t have to remain just an announcement. Since 1999, the FDA has allowed the health claim: “Diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods and low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, may help reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.”

The current whole-grain frenzy is not limited to packaged foods. Increasingly, foodservice accounts are happy to carry the whole grain message on menus and placards. Your foodservice accounts may be thrilled to see you reformulated a popular product with whole grains – or to introduce them to a new one.

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