Although many food gurus pronounce whole grains “the new norm,” formulators know a plethora of new applications can still be tapped. Manufacturers have yet to plumb the full depths of whole grain’s potential.

“There’s a lot of room for expansion of the whole grain category,” said Colleen Zammer, director of product marketing, Bay State Milling, Quincy, MA.

Some experts go even further, as did Beth Arndt, PhD, director of R&D, ConAgra Mills, Omaha, NE. “When working with formulators and new product developers, the first and most important consideration is that there is a whole grain solution for any application,” she said.

Considerable progress marks the whole grains category. Just 10 years ago, whole grain products seemed limited to whole wheat, rye and a few multigrain choices. In 2005, however, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee recommended whole grains for a bigger role in daily eating patterns, an idea that had simmered for some time beforehand. The 2010 committee’s report further underlined the role it wanted whole grains to play in the diet by recommending, “Make half your grains whole.” And in January, the US Department of Agriculture unveiled new nutrition standards calling for all grains offered in school meals be at least 51% whole grain.

Much progress has been made, but much remains to be done, especially in formulating for mainstream appeal. “There are consumers who like the unique flavor and texture of the various grains, who seek out whole grain products for a different, more adventurous eating experience,” said Susan Kay, applications manager, Bay State Milling. “And there are consumers who want whole grains to be neutral in their impact on the food.”

Mainstream and beyond

While whole grains now appear in many categories — cookies, donuts and cakes being the more adventurous — the bread aisle, in-store
bakery-delis and food service channels stand to benefit most. “Innovation with grains has still not topped out to its full extent in breads, tortillas, flatbreads and similar products,” said Rajen Mehta, PhD, senior director, fiber applications, SunOpta Ingredients Group, Chelmsford, MA.

Private label breads offer untapped potential, especially for the whole grain white category, according to Don Trouba, director of marketing, ConAgra Mills. These applications can follow the “made with whole grain” template established by premium brands. “Creating 30% whole wheat and 51% whole wheat private label brands can make the transition to more whole grains easy for both bakers and consumers thanks to the mainstream taste, texture and appeal of the white whole wheat flour now available,” he said.

Expanding whole grains to bagels, tortillas and flatbreads make many new SKUs possible. And because these items tend to be low in fat and sugar, they can carry a whole grain health claim. It’s more difficult to put the health claim on sweet goods and snack products, observed Ms. Zammer, “but you can still make an indulgent product with a healthy formulation.” The halo effect conferred by whole grain foods surrounds such items. “You can still make a content claim for whole grains even if you can’t make the health claim,” she said. “These uses are not so much health foods but healthier-for-you foods.”

And then there’s gluten-free products, which have been criticized for being relatively low in nutritional content and high in added sugars. “You can do things with whole grains to boost their nutrient content,” Dr. Mehta said. “The more you get the whole grain content up in gluten-free foods, the better.”

Many of the ancient grains — amaranth, quinoa, millet, teff and sorghum — as well as rice are naturally gluten-free, giving them a distinct health benefit, observed Tara Froemming, business development, SK Food International, Fargo, ND. (Wheat, durum, rye, barley, triticale and the wheat variants spelt, Kamut, emmer and farro contain gluten.)

Blending the answers

The first thing to know about whole grains is that they are not all alike. They differ considerably in nutritional content, textural properties, flavor and performance.

So, how to choose? “First of all, define what you are looking for in the finished product,” advised Robert Meyer, director of technical sales, Dakota Specialty Milling, Inc., Fargo, ND. Is it visibility of the grain particles? Is it heartier mouthfeel, or soft look and taste? “Remember that each grain has its own flavor profile and unique characteristics and can be more pronounced in a formula depending on what other grains, sugars and other flavors you might consider using, as well as the process.”

Some formulations work best with single grains, well proven by the popularity of whole wheat flour milled from hard white wheat to make white whole wheat bread. But interest in blends tailored to exact product needs is gaining ground.

“Customer preferences are going to a higher level, requiring much more complex blends,” said Wayne Flood, vice-president, sales and marketing, Dakota Specialty Milling. “From that, they can make their signature whole grain products.”

When assembling blends, millers have an advantage in supply chain logistics. Grains previously outside the mainstream can be difficult to source, and their uniformity questionable. The millers’ origination programs result in a steady supply of high-quality grains, allowing production of consistent products, said Jessica Wellnitz, bakery applications product development leader, Cargill, Wayzata, MN. “Beyond evaluating the milling and baking performance of incoming grains, we are constantly exploring new grain varieties and new technologies,” she added.

A matter of form

Whole grains come in many forms, ranging from fine-textured flours to cracked particles. Grain suppliers can apply toasting, puffing or soaking to further alter the grains’ performance characteristics.

Rice is a good example. Although brown, black and red rice varieties are seen as colon-healthy, their hard shells require soaking or precooking to soften their texture. But offered as puffed grains, they can be rehydrated easily without cooking. Jennifer Charles, sales manager, Roland Food Ingredients, New York, NY, reported that puffed grains, just now coming into wider availability, may simplify new product development for whole grain products.

“Outside the flour category, other grain forms such as whole cooked kernels, puffed grains or flakes can add texture, flavor, nutrition and visual appeal,” Dr. Arndt said. In addition to multigrain flours, options also include addition of flax and sunflower seeds, as offered by ConAgra Mills’ Seed Inclusion with Flax, helping formulators differentiate their products in the marketplace and giving mainstream baked foods an unexpected flavor and texture either as a topping or an inclusion. Such treatment affects costs, too.

“Before trying these unique products, start with the basic grains milled in different forms — cuts, cracked, rolled flakes, meals, flours — and with the correct formulation and process, you will end up with a very good and nutritional product at a much lower price point than if you use some of the more processed grains,” Mr. Meyer said.

For many formulations, the unique characteristics justify the costs. Gluten-free products, for example, can gain structural benefits from pregelatinized flours and nutritional improvement from sprouted grain flours. “Because pre-cooked corn and pea flours contain no gluten, they can make all the difference to getting gluten-free products over their shortcomings,” Dr. Mehta observed.

Sprouted flours contain enzymes, lignans, antioxidants and vitamins that lend health appeal to products, Dr. Mehta added. Because the grain goes through germination before milling, it generates these compounds naturally. “The seed creates these components,” he noted, “and the flour made from sprouted grain can differentiate a whole grain product from competitive items.”

Check performance factors

Some applications will be easier to adapt to whole grains than others, but the most important part of making this change is to understand the dough system and process involved. “It takes a lot of trial and error,” Ms. Kay noted.

Because whole grain ingredients differ in absorption and rate of water uptake compared with refined grains, it’s best to make sure they are fully hydrated as soon as possible, so add them at the sponge stage, Ms. Kay advised. “And with whole grains, there is a lot of ‘dead weight’ that the dough must carry,” she added. For this reason, mixing times may be shorter or longer.

“As a miller, we concentrate on particle size and on how we separate and collect the various millstreams,” Ms. Kay said. “For example, with whole white wheat, the finer the particle size, the whiter the flour, but get too fine, and you affect the starch. We’re doing a lot of work to optimize particle size. This helps manipulate water absorption and flavor.”

Reducing the particle size of the bran also softens its impact on gluten, said David Kovacic, director of technical services, Bay State Milling. The flinty bran can cut the gluten protein network, deflating the structure.

With a good understanding of the process, formulators can adapt to the demands of whole grain products. For example, as Mr. Meyer explained, sponge-and-dough methods allow hydration of grains and add fermentation attributes while no-time methods minimize those traits. If the visibility of grain particles is important in crackers, then grind becomes an essential spec. “Forms that work in breads or rolls will not necessarily work in crackers and chips or other products,” he observed.

Talking flavor and fiber

When it comes to consumer acceptance of any new product, the rule is, “It has to taste good.” Flavor is a big factor in formulating whole grain foods. The taste, texture and appearance must be optimized, depending on consumer target and the level of inclusion of whole grains, Dr. Arndt observed.

Some grains have a built-in advantage, flavorwise. “Whole grains have unique flavors,” Ms. Kay said. “And not all are bitter as consumers often assume.” Spelt is one of those exceptions, having a very mild flavor. Bay State Milling features spelt in its GrainEssentials line. “You don’t need to use bitter maskers in spelt products, so you can actually reduce the formulation’s overall sugar content.”

Fiber content is another sticking point. “To deliver on consumers’ expectations, these foods should also deliver fiber at the ‘good’ to ‘excellent’ level.,” Dr. Mehta said. Rice, commonly used in such products, contains little fiber. Thus, choosing and using the right fiber for optimum functional characteristics will not only increase the fiber content but also enhance texture.

The consequences of not using fiber, involve not only nutritional quality but also processing performance. “For example, gluten-free dough can be sticky and hard to process, but if you put in a particular oat fiber, it will absorb the excess water,” Dr. Mehta said. “It makes a dramatic difference.” Added gums and protein help adjust texture.

Suppliers are careful to point out that many of the ingredients used to supplement nutrient content do not actually qualify as whole grains, but these materials can play a big role in raising the healthy-eating profile of finished products.

Consumer thinking tends to put whole grain products into the all-natural bucket. Knowing that, formulators may wish to consider fiber ingredients prepared without chemical methods. “Our ingredients are especially for products that seek to avoid the taint of hexane extraction,” said Noel Rudie, PhD, R&D, Harvest Innovations, IA, and his colleague Nicole Tomba, vice-president, sales and marketing, noted that the company’s pulse and legume flours have made headway in gluten-free foods.

The non-GM nature of ancient grains also appeals to formulators. “Considered to be heirloom grains, ancient grains receive their name because they have remained unchanged by modern science and breeding technologies,” Ms. Froemming said, noting that some people consider them “purer grains.”

Changeover challenges

A smooth changeover from conventional white flours to whole grain styles, even whole wheat, is not a given. The presence of gluten, or the lack thereof, presents the biggest challenge. Wheat’s gluten traps the leavening gases, enabling the dough to rise to achieve a pleasing texture. Although other grains contain proteins classified as gluten, these prolamines don’t combine into the visco­elastic network of wheat gluten.

“We still see customers grapple with the shift from formulating with patent flour to whole grain flour,” Ms. Wellnitz said. The company’s white spring whole wheat flour, Cargill WheatSelect, has the protein and water absorption that help achieve high volume with less wheat gluten and conditioner additives.

The amount and type of whole grains used influences processing and final product attributes. Dr. Arndt observed that products made with 25 to 30% whole wheat flour, a relatively low inclusion level, generally require only minor changes to the formula and processing conditions. ConAgra’s proprietary method for milling its Ultragrain whole hard white wheat flour enabled preparation of baked foods with the texture, taste and appearance of white flour, “making the transition to whole grains even easier,” she said.

Whole grains take up water at a different rate than regular white flour. Mr. Kovacic attributed this difference mostly to particle size, noting that whole grain ingredients continue to hydrate after mixing and during processing. The dough dries out to a greater degree.

When converting to partial or full whole grain, formulators must take into account the fact that whole grains absorb more liquid and require less mixing, Dr. Arndt said. These doughs have lower tolerance to overmixing and may require additional functional ingredients such as gluten and oxidation agents. “It may also be necessary to make adjustments to the baking time and temperature to ensure that the product is thoroughly baked without being overly browned,” she added.

To shortstop such difficulties, product developers can turn to their suppliers of whole grain ingredients for formulation and manufacturing advice. “It’s a collaborative process,” Mr. Flood said. “We understand the grain; the baker knows his products and customers.”

If whole grains are to reach their full potential, both supplier and baker must play a role in offering products that appeal to consumers with not only a trendy image but also solid nutrition.