Waves of grains
by Charlotte Atchley
After listening to consumers ask for more whole grains during the past decade, bakeries and snack companies responded by incorporating whole grains into breads, chips and other staples of the industry. With persistent touting of whole grain health benefits by the media, the blogosphere, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and government school lunch rules, consumers’ consciousness continues to wake up to the reality of nutritious ingredients.
“We know that consumers are increasingly aware and interested in whole grains, and we definitely see them incorporating whole grains, in general, into their diets,” said Christine Cochran, executive director, Grain Foods Foundation (GFF).
Not only are people simply more aware of the health benefits of whole grains, but they also consistently act upon this information. According to US News & World Report, about 55% of consumers since 2010 switched from white to whole wheat or whole grain bread varieties. Mintel released data last year that showed whole wheat bread is the most popular bread in America, with white bread coming in second.
“If consumers have already made the switch to whole grain and they have a choice between a whole grain product or a refined product, they are going to choose whole grain for that higher nutritious product,” said Karen Mansur, program director, Whole Grains Council (WGC).
While fewer companies are venturing into the whole grain pool these days, the trend is not cooling off. Bakers that tested these waters years ago with whole wheat bread now feel comfortable enough to expand their whole grain business either by experimenting with new grains or product applications.
Ancient grains such as quinoa and amaranth are now making inroads in mainstream brands. Puffed snacks made with brown rice, amaranth or sorghum are creating a splash in the snacks market. Not even cookies or brownies are immune from becoming nutritious with whole grains. Product development ranges from bakers embracing whole grains’ often bitter taste to those taking a stealth approach by sneaking them in without consumers being able to taste their presence.
As the whole grains pool continues to expand, though, bakers and snack producers have to constantly be aware of taste and costs, with flavor still driving consumer choices and commodity prices wreaking havoc on bakery budgets.
Testing new waters
The focus for incorporating whole grains by the baking and snack industries shifted recently. Instead of companies entering the whole grain market for the first time, manufacturers already on the bandwagon are applying them in different ways.
“Whole grains grew very quickly in the industry in the last few years,” Ms. Mansur said. “Now it’s reaching a point where those companies are expanding their use of whole grains, and so now they’re finding new ways and new ingredients.” This translates to new grains being brought into consumer consciousness and new foods incorporating whole grains.
Bread and other baked goods categories continue to lead the whole grain movement. However, healthful ingredients have started showing up in other segments trying to help their nutritional profiles. Companies are experimenting with whole grains in snack chips, crackers, cookies, brownies and bars to continue to capitalize on health-conscious consumers. “The puff corn makers who have been making puff corn forever are using whole grains,” Ms. Mansur said.
Frito-Lay North America, Plano, TX, jumped on the whole grain trend with its launch of Sun Chips in 1991. Made with whole wheat and brown rice flours, these chips contain 18 g of whole grains per 1-oz serving. Recently in response to consumer demand, the nation’s largest snack producer expanded its whole grain offerings with two new lines of products: Tostitos Artisan, developed in 2009 and launched in 2010, and Smartfoods Selects, developed in 2011 and launched in 2012. While the original Tostitos line does not have enough whole grains to make a claim due to processing techniques, the Artisan line contains 8 g of whole grains per serving. The Smartfoods Selects brand includes popped chips and popcorn and carries 12 to 14 g of whole grains in every serving.
Dancing Deer Baking Co., Boston, saw an opportunity to provide whole grains in a decadent way. In the past year, the company launched six new flavors of brownies, cookies and bars made with 100% whole grains. Rooting formulas in whole wheat, barely or oats, Jennifer Shelley, master baker and product development chef for Dancing Deer, created brownies and cookies that deliver whole grain nutrition. “It’s evident that whole grain in your diet is healthy, and that inspired us to offer our customers a way to get whole grains in their diet through their dessert,” she said.
While wheat and oats remain the dominant whole grains in the bakery, companies continue to offer more adventurous consumers with a greater number of choices. “People are starting to branch out in grains like they’re doing with veggies,” said Diane Forley, owner, Flourish Baking Co., Scarsdale, NY.
Amaranth seems to be the latest and greatest grain to take the whole grain spotlight. According to Ms. Mansur of WGC, the grain is found in every segment. “Its nutrition profile is very high in protein, and it’s gluten-free. It’s showing up in flakes in cereal and granola. It’s being puffed for snacks and incorporated into chips, baking mixes, pie crusts and tortillas,” she said. Compared with whole wheat, it’s lighter and sweeter to the consumer palate, making it an easy grain to use.
Maturing consumer palates
Despite whole grain’s nutritional superiority to refined wheat, consumers still put taste and price ahead of health when it comes to purchases, and whole grains definitely have their own distinct flavors.
“There is always going to be a segment of the market in which, from a taste or budget perspective, whole grain is just not going to be appealing, but we see a significant portion of the market undergoing a taste shift,” Ms. Cochran said.
After adopting whole grain products, however, consumers seem to miss the whole grain taste when trying an enriched flour product. “Consumers are starting to develop their palates, and as they eat products made with whole wheat and go back to the product made with white wheat, it is missing the depth, flavor and texture they’re used to,” Ms. Mansur said.
Deciding whether to embrace complex whole grain flavors or hide them depends heavily on which consumers a bakery or snack company is trying to reach. People accustomed to whole grain taste expect the flavor, but those who aren’t used to it may be unsettled by the new experience. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. “New ingredient developments are making it really easy to incorporate whole grains, and bakers will miss the mark if they aren’t jumping on board,”
Ms. Mansur said.
Maple Leaf Foods, Toronto, started offering a “smooth grains” pantry bread that provides whole grain nutrition to consumers who don’t want the mouthfeel of seeds or fibers in their bread.
When developing Dancing Deer’s whole grain desserts, Ms. Forley did not want people enjoying the brownies and cookies to realize they were eating whole grains based on taste. She said the company sourced untreated whole wheat flour that provides a smooth texture but does not interfere with the decadent flavors and texture.
Frito-Lay tries to develop healthful products with flavors that appeal to everyone, including whole grain adopters and those who just want the nutrition benefits. According to Katherine Francis, nutrition scientist and registered dietician for Frito-Lay, part of that process includes matching flavors and grains. “We pair the right flavor to the right product. For example, a flavor that works for corn-based product might not work for a wheat-based product and vice versa,” she said.
Whole grains will continue to be a force that bakers and snack makers need to reckon with. The changes whole grains cause in taste and the cost and availability of commodities in general, however, serve as a caution sign to companies wanting to incorporate or experiment with whole grains.
“Bakers and snack makers need to recognize the whole grain trend is very important, but consumers make choices based on flavor and cost, and those are important considerations as well if you’re a producer,” Ms. Cochran said. “You have to ask, ‘How will it change the integrity of the product and impact the cost to consumers?’ ”