Loaded with dietary fiber, high in lignans and packed with potassium, rye has a lot going for it. So, why don’t more Americans eat rye breads? The tide may be changing as artisan bakers lead the way and nutrition science proves rye’s health benefits.
And there are plenty of those benefits to go around. “Probably the most intriguing would be that whole grain rye has a higher fiber content than whole wheat and most other grains,” said Susan Kay, manager, product applications, Bay State Milling Co., Quincy, MA. This fiber contributes to satiety, digestive health and a lower glycemic index, compared with other whole grains. “Rye carries a healthy dose of potassium as well,” she added.
Rye bread is not new to American store shelves, but what raises market interest is rye’s increasing profile. “In artisan products, rye has received a lot of attention,” said Colleen Zammer, Bay State’s director of product marketing. “It is a component in many Old World levains and bigas.” Bay State is the largest miller of rye flour in the US.
All rye, native to the Asia Minor and first cultivated in Central and Eastern Europe, is conventionally bred and, thus, non-GMO. Per capita consumption of rye is highest in Poland at 35 kg, with Northern Europeans eating 14 to 16 kg, Germany 10 kg and the former USSR, 10 kg. In the US, it’s barely ½ kg.
“The Nordic Rye Group companies have done a lot of research on rye in respect to satiety and other benefits,” Ms. Zammer said. “There’s a huge body of research available.” The group recently compiled “Rye and Health,” a guide to rye that covers its metabolic and physiological effects. For example, rye’s high dietary fiber content lowers rye bread’s glycemic index to below that of white bread. Several European studies found reduced insulin response, alleviation of metabolic syndrome and even reduction in the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Rye’s fiber doesn’t just come from the bran, according to Ms. Kay. Nature gave rye more cell walls within its endosperm than wheat and most other grains. Rye is also the highest in lignans of the cereals. These display weak estrogenic activity but do not cause adverse effects in the body, and some researchers speculate that they may act as anti-cancer agents, a claim not yet proven.
At present, Food and Drug Administration labeling regulations do not include a separate health claim for rye, but use of this grain does qualify for the whole grains claim about reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The stumbling block, however, has been flavor. Traditional rye breads carry strong tastes coming mostly from the rye sour, herbs, spices and onions. “Among consumers, rye has a strong association with caraway,” Ms. Zammer said. “The two seem to go hand in hand, but caraway can be a polarizing flavor.”
Yet bread made from rye flour without the traditional caraway, dill and similar ingredients has a surprisingly mellow taste. “Whole grain rye has a unique flavor profile that consists of mild green grass with a slight sourness,” Ms. Kay said. “Because these flavor profiles are mild in intensity, whole grain rye lends itself well to both sweet and savory baked goods.” Bay State has successfully tested cookie and bar prototypes made with whole grain rye in a flour blend.
Like the popular soft pretzel flavored with asiago cheese and onion sampled at the 2013 International Baking Industry Exposition, new rye product projects underway at the company’s Rothwell GrainEssentials Innovation Center take advantage of a new whole grain rye flour. Different from the usual coarse rye or rye chops styles, its extra-fine particle size makes it more functional in bread. “Also, [the blend with whole wheat flour] demonstrates the ability of rye to suppress off-notes sometimes associated with whole wheat,” Ms. Zammer observed. “It proves that rye breads don’t always have to taste like German rye.”
Ms. Kay added, “I consider rye a best-kept secret that is ready to come out of hiding.”