Tests are taking place in cafeterias as well as classrooms this school year. School food service operators and the grain-based foods industry want to see if students will give such whole grain items as pizza crust, pasta and pancakes an “A” for appetizing or an “F” for fling it into the trash.

“The school guidelines are the No. 1 story in whole grains at the moment,” said Jeff Casper, R.&D. manager for Horizon Milling, based in Minneapolis and a joint venture between Cargill and CHS.

An item in the Jan. 26 Federal Register sped up whole grain innovation in school meal programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said that for this school year and the 2013-14 school year, whole grain-rich products must make up half of all grain products offered to students. Starting with the 2014-15 school year, schools must offer only whole grain-rich products. Whole grain-rich products must contain at least 51% whole grain, and the product’s remaining grain product must be enriched.

The “2012 Back to School Trends Report” released in August by the School Nutrition Association, National Harbor, Md., gave insight on whole grain progress. The survey of 579 U.S. school districts found more than 92% of the districts serve pizza with whole grain crust. More than 80% offer whole grain pastas, rice and cereals, and 78% serve whole grain tortillas, pitas or flatbreads.

Pizza, including both whole grain crust and crust that is not whole grain, was the most popular lunch entree at 42% of the districts. It ranked ahead of second-place chicken nuggets, tenders, strips or fingers at 26%.

“Whole grain pizza is a great place to incorporate whole grains for school lunch,” said Brook Carson, technical product manager for ADM Milling, Decatur, Ill. “Whole grain wheat flour is typically used to maintain the texture that consumers are used to with pizza, but any type of whole grain flour could be used. The gluten in the whole wheat flour is required for the strong chewy texture. Other grains could be added to provide a unique product.”

Hard white wheat is the most common approach in pizza crust formulation, Mr. Casper said.

“Every milling company has their own version of white wheat,” he said. “There is an attempt to differentiate white wheats from one another.”

Horizon Milling offers WheatSelect, a white spring whole wheat flour that has the lighter color, softer texture and milder flavor of white flour.

In preparing its Kansas Diamond white whole wheat flour, ADM Milling selects and mills white wheats to ensure the process yields a light-colored, yet fiber-rich and protein-rich flour with microfine particles that produce a smooth, pleasing mouthfeel, according to the company.

Bay State Milling, Quincy, Mass., this year launched an Easy GrAin pizza crust mix that is 53% whole grain on a flour basis, which meets and exceeds the U.S.D.A.’s school lunch program criteria of 51%.

The company had students in mind when developing the mix.

Consumers seeking whole grain products may fall into two groups, said Dave Kovacic, director of technical services for Bay State Milling and based in Wichita, Kas. One group wants to experience the taste, texture and sight of whole grain products. The other group does not seek that experience and instead wants whole grain products to more closely resemble enriched flour products. Students generally fall into the latter group.

“With school systems, they clearly want it to look and taste like pizza, traditional pizza,” Mr. Kovacic said.

Bay State Milling throughout the 2011-12 school year worked with food service customers on whole grain pizza crust and created customized mixes or helped develop scratch systems for the school food service operations, he said.

Easy GrAin is the next step, Mr. Kovacic said. Bay State Milling uses its GrainEssentials extra fine white whole wheat flour in Easy GrAin to make the pizza more closely resemble and taste like traditional pizza.

“We found that with school children, white wheat is certainly the way to go,” Mr. Kovacic said.

Whole wheat flour is the first item on Easy GrAin’s ingredient list. Enriched wheat flour also is included to provide soft texture, a chewy bite and a lighter color to the crust. Other ingredients in the mix include soybean oil, salt, sugar, brown sugar, wheat gluten, malted barley flour, ascorbic acid, enzymes and the antioxidant TBHQ.

Only water and dry yeast need to be added to Easy GrAin. While such a complete mix may cost more than other mixes, food service companies may save money in other ways, Mr. Kovacic said. They may cut back on scaling raw materials, and they may not have to hire as many skilled laborers.

Bay State Milling initially targeted school systems with its Easy GrAin, The mix also may be used by restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and just about any company that serves pizza, Mr. Kovacic said.

Besides pizza crust, school systems have other opportunities to serve whole grain products.

ConAgra Mills, Omaha, offers Ultragrain whole wheat flour made from a proprietary variety of wheat. It has been shown to work in such items as pizza crust, snack crackers, breadsticks, pancakes, bars, cookies, dessert pies, muffins and pastries, said Don Trouba, director of marketing. ConAgra Mills grinds the whole wheat with a patented milling technology that maintains the flour’s mild taste and develops the smooth texture while preserving the elements in whole wheat bran such as fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients.

ConAgra Mills and J.M. Swank, a national food ingredient distributor, in 2010 introduced Ultragrain Pasta based on Ultragrain whole wheat flour. It
offers such enriched flour pasta attributes as a mild flavor, smooth texture, lighter color and no brown specks.

Mr. Casper said innovative whole grain products were on display at a recent School Nutrition Association annual meeting. A whole grain corn dog had the lighter color of whole grain corn.

“With corn, it’s something that not everybody is doing, but for school nutrition it helps you get the whole grains into products, and it helps you in a cost-effective way,” Mr. Casper said. “It allows you to modify the taste, texture and color of the product.”

At the S.N.A. meeting, whole grains also appeared in pretzels and egg roll wrappers.

For his examples of whole grain products, Mr. Kovacic said school breakfast offerings may include pancakes, waffles and toast and school lunch offerings may include croissant bread, breadsticks and cornbread.

According to the S.N.A. report, 16% of school districts said french toast/pancakes/waffles was the most popular breakfast entree overall, which included whole grain as well as non-whole grain, while 12.9% reported cereal and 12.7% reported breakfast pizza.

The “Whole Grains Challenge” from the Whole Grains Council, Boston, should offer more school menu ideas. The annual contest encourages schools, covering the grades kindergarten through high school, to share success stories for promoting whole grain consumption. The contest is divided into two categories. Veteran schools, the first category, are those that began offering more whole grain items long before the U.S.D.A. announced its new rules in the Federal Register. Rookies, the second category, are schools ramping up to meet the new guidelines. In November, the Whole Grains Council will announce five winners from each of the two categories.

“The whole grain scene for schools is exploding rapidly in terms of options,” said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways/The Whole Grains Council. “We’re delighted to see such a wide range of manufacturers doing their part to support whole grains in schools, including companies for which this is a new direction.”