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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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.

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