MINNEAPOLIS — Initiatives to increase whole grain and fiber intake within the school lunch program are gaining traction thanks to efforts from leading grain-based foods companies willing to dedicate the resources to research.

Examples of ways in which that research is paying off were described by representatives of Minneapolis-based Cargill as part of a December presentation to the Grains for Health Foundation at a symposium, "Delivering Added-value Grain-based Foods through School Meals."

As part of the presentation, Cargill described breakthroughs in technology that have allowed the company to develop Cargill Healthy Cookie Base, a formulation that allows for the creation of whole grain cookies and bars with added fiber. The base is packed with proprietary ingredients from Cargill designed to enhance nutrition and sensory appeal, including Grain Wise wheat aleurone, Wheat Select white spring whole wheat, and Oliggo•Fiber.

According to Cargill, the base’s advantages include:

• a mild taste without the strong flavor of whole wheat;

• softer texture and a home-style appearance;

• 57.5% total whole grains;

• more than 25% total dietary fiber;

• 0 grams trans fat;

• a fewer number of ingredients to scale and store;

• saves time and labor required to process multiple ingredients;

• allows manufacturers to quickly develop and differentiate products.

The Healthy Cookie Base was then used as part of a feeding study conducted by researchers from Cargill and the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. As part of the study, researchers examined the dietary intake of 350 children in regards to a whole grain brown sugar cinnamon bar formulated by Cargill versus a control through the use of plate waste (how much food was left on plates and thrown away).

The students, in kindergarten through grade six, were offered the whole grain bar three times (once per week) and its standard version counterpart (traditional oatmeal cinnamon bar in the shape of a cookie) three times (once per week). The brown sugar bar contained 9.5 grams of whole grains (whole wheat and whole oats) and 5 grams of fiber, while the control had approximately less than 5 grams of whole grains per serving (whole oats) and a fiber level of less than 1 gram per serving.

Mean per cent consumption for the whole grain brown sugar cinnamon bar was not statistically different from the control.

"We expected the product to perform well, as it was formulated to have a pleasing taste and texture," said Jessica Wellnitz, senior food technologist, Cargill. "What was surprising was the added nutrition we were able to provide the children. With average consumption of the brown sugar cinnamon bar at 64%, we provided 6 grams of whole grains and over 3 grams of fiber. Average consumption of the control was slightly higher at 75%, but the children consumed less than 3.75 grams of whole grains and less than 1 gram of dietary fiber. We see that as a significant benefit."

Ms. Wellnitz noted that while the success of the study had a lot to do with the fact that children were given bars, it is important to consider the value in giving them bars with added nutritional value.

"We are equipped with the tools to develop foods that are nutrient dense and taste great," she said. "White whole wheat and rolled oats are great examples of whole grain delivery mechanisms. Fortifying foods that generally lack significant nutritional value seems like a smart move for the food industry."

The opportunities presented by whole grain bars and cookies will depend on how school nutrition personnel, finished good manufacturers, ingredient suppliers, government and academia work together to discover needs and collaborative potential, the researchers noted. From stakeholders to research to educational sessions, how any whole grains program is accepted will depend on wide ranging communication between all levels of the chain. Another challenge is schools receiving funding for incorporating healthier food options, a hurdle Cargill believes the cost efficient Healthy Cookie Base may help overcome.

"The results of these studies will help to support the goal of added nutrition in school food programs," Ms. Wellnitz said. "The relationships we build between school food service and industry is critical to the success of that goal."

Challenges still remain in determining the optimal manner in which to incorporate whole grain snacks in school food service. Equally as important is whether the products should be mandatory parts of the school meal plan, or whether they’re best served as a part of the ala carte menu.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Milling and Baking News, February 24, 2008, starting on Page 40. Click
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