Are Americans finally becoming whole grains consumers? We’re getting close, and that’s probably because of better-crafted whole grain ingredients and savvier formulating approaches that now make whole grain products more tasty and attractive.

A new survey of Americans’ eating habits by the Whole Grains Council (WGC), Boston, showed consumption on the rise. The online survey of 1,510 US adults found that 64% increased their whole grain consumption “some” or “a lot” in the past five years. Thirty-one percent said they nearly always choose whole grains, up from 4% five years ago. And 32% said they choose whole grains about half the time.

“For years, most people came nowhere close to whole grain recommendations, so it is encouraging to see that many are now benefiting from switching more of the grains they eat to whole grains,” said Cynthia Harriman, WGC’s director of food and nutrition strategies. “The next step is tempting Americans to expand their whole grain palates beyond bread, cereal and brown rice to delicious grains like spelt, farro, amaranth and teff.”

Bakers have long offered whole wheat bread. “But a lot has changed,” said Christine Cochran, executive director, Grain Foods Foundation, Washington, DC. “What we see today is that 50% of shoppers actively seek more whole foods, and 56% seek healthier foods. This is a broad trend, and it’s very specific to whole grains.”

Why the allure?

Aware that eating quality posed a drawback to whole grain foods in the past, millers and bakery formulators transformed these goods to meet the expectations of today’s consumers.

“Whole grain products have become more available to the general public,” observed Judie Giebel, technical services representative and AIB Certified Baker, Briess Malt & Ingredients, Chilton, WI. “But they are not like years ago. Now they taste great. Formulators have learned how to bake with them. The next generation is being brought up on whole grains. They are acquiring a taste for it and will want it as they grow older and form their own families.”

Simply stated, rising consumption is largely because whole grain products made today are better than those of yesterday. “Because the food industry is looking closely at the increased demand for whole grain products, they are learning more about making better quality products,” said Claudia Carter, milling and baking quality laboratory director, California Wheat Commission, Woodland, CA.

The glow of health that first threw light on whole grains continues to be most important to consumers. “Bakers responded to consumers and started using more varieties of grains and seeds in their baked goods,” said Robert (Bob) Meyer Jr., director of technical services, Dakota Specialty Milling, Fargo, ND. “This was driven by the consumer wanting a much healthier product, provided by the natural nutritional values of whole grains and other edible seeds.”

Much credit for improving the appeal of whole grains goes to those who process them for use by bakers and snack food makers. Consider the finely milled whole white wheat flours. “They offer the particulate size of patent flours and weren’t available 15 years ago,” said Matt Gennrich, research food technologist, Cargill, Wayzata, MN. “But today, there are a wide variety of whole grain flours available that support formulating flexibility and choice.”

Zack Sanders, marketing director, Ardent Mills, Denver, described the development of the company’s line of finely particulated flours, developed to boost the whole grain content of products yet maintain the flavor, color and appeal of items made with typical white flour. “It’s made with specially selected wheat that's naturally milder, sweeter and lighter in color than red whole wheat,” he said. “It's milled using a unique method that retains all of the whole grain nutrition while achieving the consistency of white flour.”

Some formulators turned to older milling methods. Mr. Meyer noted replacement of white bread flours with stone ground whole wheat flour and whole white wheat flours. “These flours have become much more stable in their functionality and processing in the bakeries, making it easier to provide whole grain products,” he said.

The boom in consumers seeking gluten-free foods helped raise the profile of whole grains that weren’t wheat. “We need to start thinking of gluten-free breads as just another non-wheat bread like rye breads and use the techniques that have been applied to those, especially the use of pre-ferments,” said Mike Saulsberry, vice-president, bakery ingredients division, Watson, Inc., West Haven, CT.

The gluten-free experience spurred more uses. “Across the board today, we see gluten-free as the most prevalent interest,” said Jennifer Tesch, sales and marketing director, SK Food International, Fargo, ND, “but traditional bakers are also using more sprouted flours along with ancient grains and whole grains. They keep adding ‘one more’ in the market to reach their niche consumers as well as the mainstream.”

Consumer concerns about allergens such as gluten led to new product categories and prompted formation of new bakeries and food companies catering to these needs. “These changes necessitated bakers to experiment with leavening and elasticity of breads through flour blends,” said Tim Devey, corporate marketing manager, Honeyville, Inc., Rancho Cucamonga, CA. Most gluten-free grains yield flours that do not rise well unless blended with other flours. “What we are seeing is more innovation and modern twists on old bakery favorites, because the market has been searching for it,” he said.

What new trends?

Innovation continues, and one result is sprouted wheat flour, prepared at the mill rather than the bakery as before. Sprouting activates enzymes native to the kernel, especially amylase, which breaks down the starchy endosperm into simple saccharides necessary for the seed to grow. These are the same sugars that enable yeast to leaven doughs and help color bread crusts.

“Sprouted breads can provide a sweet taste and attractive color that also resonates with health-conscious consumers,” Mr. Sanders said. Such flours give excellent bread baking performance — higher volume, lighter color and softer texture — along with sweeter, less bitter taste than conventional, unsprouted wheat flours. He described applications in breads, muffins, cookies and crackers.

Formulators should consider sprouted grains and flours because they appeal to a group of consumers we like to call ‘enlightened eaters,’ ” Mr. Sanders said. These are educated, higher-income consumers interested in flavor adventure, health and wellness, and have a desire to enlighten those around them. “They are early adopters of food trends, and they have influence on the overall food conversation in the country,” he added.

Jeff Yankellow, regional sales manager, bakery flour, King Arthur Flour Co., Norwich, VT, noted rising interest in sprouted grains and added, “Many people believe the grain becomes more digestible after sprouting and the vitamins and minerals in the grain become more accessible by the body.”

Recent trends find whole grains moving into new categories. With snacks becoming meals, as many recent surveys note, snacking is a category ripe for whole grains, according to Ms. Cochran.

The snack door opened because of changes in whole grain ingredients. Taste and texture, no surprise, lead the way. “Mouthfeel in cookies and crackers is more forgiving than in cakes or breads,” Ms. Carter observed.

Inroads are also being made in the school foodservice venue, which faces federal mandates to offer whole-grain-rich foods containing at least 51% whole grain flour. “Often white whole wheat is being used in these programs,” said Reuben McLean, director, wheat quality and food safety, Grain Craft, Chattanooga, TN.

Milled from hard white winter wheat (HWW), these flours are characterized as sweeter and milder in taste than those made from hard red winter wheat because white wheat does not contain as many tannins as red wheat. He expected new varieties of HWW to produce even better performing products.

“In theory, some white whole wheat products may require less sugar in the formulation as compared to red whole wheat products,” he added.

While most conventional whole wheat flour is milled from hard winter varieties, interest in soft wheat whole grain flour is perking up. Described by Chunjian (CJ) Lin, PhD, vice-president, R&D and QA, The Mennel Milling Co., Fostoria, OH, this style is still relatively small in overall demand but growing. The company’s graham flour is also seeing an increase.

“This trend is driven by the consumer,” Dr. Lin said. “While conventional white flour is still the largest usage category for baked foods, we are finding demand for whole grain styles rising.”

The news at Mennel is heat-treated whole wheat flours, hard and soft, that features better dough rheology and baking performance compared with other whole wheats. “The heat treatment is applied to the bran and germ before it is recombined with the other mill streams that form whole wheat flour,” Dr. Lin said. The process also gets rid of unwanted enzyme activity by deactivating the lipase naturally present.

What’s the prediction?

“Whole grain is kind of a baker’s dream,” Mr. Meyer said. “Everyone wants whole grain to work and to work in a variety of product applications from bread to cookies and chips to crackers. Bakers are still learning about these new ingredients. They are different in mix time, absorption and bake time, but one thing, the finished products must have the shelf life consumers expect.”

And plenty of innovation supports these ingredients. “Cuts, cracks, flakes, sprouted, crisped, puffed, pre-gelatinized, pre-soaked and toasted are just a few of the latest buzzwords in the marketplace when shopping for whole grain ingredients,” observed Susan Kay, product applications manager, Bay State Milling, Quincy, MA. Work with your supplier’s product application team, she advised. “[This] will shorten the learning curve when first working with any whole grain or seed in any format. Trial and error with a healthy dose of patience is the name of the game.”

It’s worth the effort. “Whole grains are part of the health trend, which is here to stay,” Ms. Cochran said. “They have gone from the chunky granola found only in health food stores in the 1970s to completely mainstream today.”