Whether consumers like the taste of whole grain or not, they all want the nutrition. “If consumers have a choice between a whole grain or refined product, they are going to choose whole grain for its nutritious image,” said Karen Mansur, program director for the Whole Grains Council, “especially if they can get that nutrition in a way that tastes like what they’re used to.”

Consumers are reading food labels more than ever and looking for recognizable ingredients. Institutions and foodservice establishments are asking bakers for more whole grain options. In return, bakers are asking for more whole grain ingredients.

Even though whole grain is becoming more and more widely accepted, it does not exist without its own challenges. Food processors must navigate a world of regulation and a sea of confused consumers. “There is still consumer confusion between products with whole grain claims, the Whole Grain Stamp, and ‘Made with Whole Grain’ labels,” said Jeff Casper, R&D manager, Horizon Milling, Wayzata, MN.

Bakers and snack makers should know what ingredients consumers are looking for as well as the taste and texture their target shoppers prefer. And then there is the price tag. “The economy has made it difficult on these premium products because of their higher price,” said Robert C. Meyer Jr., director of technical services, Dakota Specialty Milling, Inc., Fargo, ND. Finding cost-effective ways to formulate with whole grains is necessary in order to pass those savings onto the consumer and get the products into the shopping cart.

Wheat has long dominated the whole grain marketplace as the preferable grain for formulating whole grain products. When substituting whole grain for refined flour, the obvious choice is to replace it with wheat in its whole grain form. Now that consumers are used to whole wheat, the next step is to venture into other, less prevalent whole grains. “The whole grains baking market was once focused on growing the whole wheat bread category,” said Colleen Zammer, director of product marketing, Bay State Milling, Quincy, MA. “Now, in many areas, whole wheat is exceeding white bread sales, and consumers are growing tired of only having two choices, white or brown.”

A new spin on bread

As consumers have acclimated to the bitterness and hearty texture of whole wheat bread, they’ve sought out some diversity in their whole grain bread options, giving bakers the opportunity to get creative when it comes to taste and texture of the average loaf of bread.

“From a grain standpoint, this has led to bread and baked products using more ancient grains and gluten-free grains for their marketing and nutritional appeal,” Ms. Zammer said. With its acquisition of T.J. Harkins in August 2013, Bay State Milling expanded its grain ­choices from wheat, rye and spelt to include ancient grains such as amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat and sorghum, which happen to also be gluten-free.

Grain Millers, Inc., Eden Prairie, MN, which focuses on oat products, has seen the value of and demand for ancient grains and introduced its own capabilities with these ingredients at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and Food Expo this year. The company hopes to expand to all of the ancient grains in the future but currently offers amaranth, buckwheat, chia, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff.

Recognizing growing demand in whole grain across all bakery and snack categories, ADM Milling, Overland Park, KS, added whole grain sorghum flour. “Going forward, we plan to evaluate the opportunity to add other whole grains,” said Brook Carson, director of R&D, ADM Milling. “We are also evaluating our existing systems to determine what modifications could be made to support more whole grain ingredients and then determine what other varieties of whole grain would fit best.”

While whole grains in bread have definitely made strides to overtake refined flour, the taste and texture is still polarizing among consumers. “There is strong demand for products that are rich with whole grains but lighter in color, less bitter in flavor and have softer texture as well as an emerging trend around specialty items that are more dense and textured,” Mr. Casper said. While ancient grains may satisfy more curious palates, some people just want soft, smooth bread with added benefits of whole grain.

To meet this continued need, ConAgra Mills, Omaha, NE, offers its Ultragrain whole wheat flour, milled from hard white wheat. This flour’s particulates are fine enough to deliver a finished product with whole grain nutrition without changing the taste, color and texture of a product. For bakers wanting to make the transition to whole grain nutrition, ConAgra Mills offers Ultragrain T-1, a blend of 30% Ultragrain flour and 70% conventional white flour, milled from hard red wheat. This blend makes transitioning simpler without risking consumer appeal, according to the company.

Taking a snack break

Although whole grain is still evolving in the bread aisle, many food companies are setting their whole grain sights on other segments. “The industry grew very quickly in the last few years, and now it’s reaching a point where companies are expanding their use of whole grain, finding new ways and new ingredients,” Ms. Mansur said. Instead of committing wholly to whole grains, companies are simply expanding their use of whole grains into snacks and other baked foods.

This building interest in new grains for new applications is obvious to Rajen Mehta, PhD, senior director, specialty ingredients, Grain Millers, Inc., Eugene, OR. Different grains and fractions of grains result in different products. When adding red wheat bran to a low-moisture product, a snack producer will create a product with some crunch. Use white wheat bran instead, and that product will be softer.

“All the textures are affected by the grain components, and often even the way you process them ­affects the end product,” Dr. Mehta said. “Everything from particle size to what kind of pre-heat treatment, whether you use wet heat or dry heat will affect the structure of your grain component, and it will affect the texture of the product.”

As with bread products, some consumers love the taste of refined wheat but want the nutrition of whole grains, and other consumers embrace the flavors of whole grain. Bakers and snack producers can get their arms around both of these consumer types by using different grains and particulate sizes.

Soft white whole wheat flour from ADM Milling gives cookies, crackers and other snack foods higher amounts of whole grain. “By choosing soft white wheat, the finished product has less bitterness and the appropriate delicate texture typically expected in applications made from soft wheat,” Ms. Carson said.

In delivering exciting tastes to snacks, ancient grains can bring novel whole grain nutrition to a snack that whole wheat maybe can’t. They can also provide the added value of gluten-free. ConAgra Mills attributes the success of its Ancient Grains to consumer demand for variety. Introduced in 2007, the portfolio includes amaranth, quinoa, sorghum, millet and teff. The company most recently added buckwheat, spelt and different puffed and toasted grains to give snack producers and bakers more versatility.

Formulating a switch

The goal at the end of the production line, in all cases, is to provide a nutritional and tasty product. However, whole grain products are by nature more complicated and costly to produce than their refined counterparts. Before starting R&D work, bakers and snack producers must consider the goals of the finished product, Mr. Meyer said. Should the product meet any of the Food and Drug Administration’s health claims for whole grains? Who is the final customer, and what are that customer’s needs? Are you adding other nutritional ingredients such as vitamins, calcium, fiber or protein to enhance the benefits of their products? 

Susan Kay, manager of product applications, Bay State Milling, said the trick is knowing what modifications must be made to formulas and the production process when using whole grains. Manufacturers need to understand the basic qualities of the whole grain they are using in order to adjust production. Bakers should consider the necessary changes in the hydration rate, gluten development and mix times, dough handling and makeup as well as proofing, baking and temperatures. “With some basic understanding of whole grains and hands-on experience of working with whole grain formulations, bakers and formulators will become proficient in whole grain formulating,” Ms. Kay said.

For bakers switching over to whole grain for the first time, ConAgra Mills’ Ultragrain flour makes the transition easy. Bakers can blend Ultragrain whole wheat flour at the 30% level with white flour without changing a formula. This simplifies formulating while maintaining the texture and taste for consumers who may be gun shy about whole grains.

More economical approaches

When it comes to reducing the cost of formulating with whole grains, knowing which grain to use is a good start. “The optimum flour creates the optimum framework for the product,” Ms. Carson said. “When you start with the right flour, you can often limit other more costly ingredients.”

When experimenting with cost savings in formulation, if the grain itself is costly, Dr. Mehta said bakers can substitute it for a more economical one and make up the functionality differences with different technical approaches. “But you have to understand the functionality of the different ingredients, everything from gums to starches to the flours,” he stressed.

One whole grain in particular can alleviate much of the stress associated with cost. While some whole grains are difficult to source and therefore pricey, whole grain corn is plentiful and therefore cost effective. “It’s also gluten-free, label-friendly and easily substitutes for traditional corn,” said Jeff Dillon, vice-president of sales and marketing, Didion Milling, Johnson Creek, WI. “It’s the most economical way to go whole grain.”

Another strategy for reducing costs is reviewing the formulation and finding ways to substitute ­additives with less costly counterparts. Dr. Mehta suggested that bakers and snack producers work with a trusted supplier who has the knowledge and experience necessary to make suggestions. “For example, they can suggest instead of using a starch maybe you can use flour or a flour component,” he said. “You can replace some of the more expensive proteins with less expensive grain proteins.”

Reviewing formulations is a normal part of the process for Horizon Milling. According to Mr. Casper, the company analyzes formulas and products on an annual basis with their customers to ensure that Horizon Milling is providing the most cost-effective wheat protein mix. This could include comparisons of higher- and lower-costing flours to achieve savings,” he explained. “Other opportunities sometimes present themselves with reviewing the amount of additives being used to alleviate additional ingredients and improve overall cost structure per dough produced.”

Functional flours can also cut down on production costs. Often whole grain flours need to be mixed longer and slower for the grains to be optimally hydrated. This slows all of production down and costs money. Functional flours with high water absorption can speed that process along. Grain Millers recently introduced its latest in its FunctionalFlours line. Its high-water-absorbing oat flour and low-viscosity whole oat flour are both whole grain flours with some extra functionality.

ConAgra Mills’ Ultragrain HP reduces the amount of additional wheat gluten a product needs and enables higher absorption and improved mixing performance. All of this culminates in lower costs for finished goods.

As the American palate matures and adapts to this whole grain world, bakers and snack producers can be more innovative in the whole grain ingredients they choose. They can experiment with the flavors and textures of ancient grains and corn, or they can take advantage of whole grain flours that deliver the same texture and taste as refined flour. With these innovations in functional flours and different grains and grain components, bakers and snack manufacturers can successfully navigate the whole grain market.