What does the future hold for new product development in the grain-based foods industry? A few weeks ago, four experts sat down to share their thoughts about the future of grain-based foods with members of the cereal chemistry community. The panel discussion capped the program for the AACC International Milling & Baking Division’s annual spring technical conference, held this year at Las Vegas, NV, May 16-18.

Participating were Mark Ingelin, advanced specialist, bakery, The Kroger Co., Columbus, OH; Rich Junge, manager, food science and technology, food innovation and development, menu management, McDonald’s Corp., Oak Brook, IL; Charlie Moon, vice-president, technical services, Flowers Foods, Thomasville, GA; and Maureen Olewnik, Ph.D., vice-president, audit and technical services, AIB International, Manhattan, KS. The panel, “Contemporary problems and opportunities in bakery formulating,” was moderated by Laurie Gorton, executive editor of Baking & Snack.

WHOLE TRUTH. When it comes to new products in the baking industry, whole grains have the most momentum now, but what about times to come? The panelists predicted a bright future for new product activity, starting with whole grains. “We believe this category will continue to grow strongly,” Mr. Moon said. His company recently introduced several new breads under the Nature’s Own brand. These include both whole-grain styles and the popular “blended” formulations that combine white wheat whole-wheat flour with enriched white flour.
Panelists pointed to continued interest in white wheat developments. Although white wheat varieties have long been used for cake and cookie products, white “bread” wheat is a relatively new development. A form of winter wheat, it lacks the bitter pigment found in the bran of red winter wheat. The taste of baked foods made with white winter wheat is frequently described as sweeter than those with red winter wheat.

“There is much work and focus on whole white by the growers,” Dr. Olewnik observed. “Farmers will plant what they know. Yet at the Wheat Summit recently held at Kansas City, MO, there was a push for farmers to plant more white wheat.”

Mr. Ingelin noted that this interest should continue for a good while, moving strongly forward along with other whole grains. “I don’t have our sales figures at hand, but consumers do want whole grains,” he said. “And in white wheat, we have a whole grain that mills into flour that does not look like whole-wheat flour and bakes into bread that does not look like whole-wheat bread.”

Education, however, will be necessary to support the momentum of white wheat specifically and whole grains in general. “It is sometimes difficult to get consumers to understand the difference between red and white wheat,” Mr. Moon observed. “Flowers has used white wheat flour since the late 1990s. We continue to use it, but the message (of its comparative value) is hard to get across.”

In this situation, food service is likely to follow rather than lead the trend. “When consumers recognize white wheat in the market, then they’ll ask for it in food service,” Mr. Junge noted. “Choice is increasingly important to our consumers.”

NUTRITION NEWS. Health and wellness is proving a rich mine of new product ideas, according to the panelists. Such opportunities now suffuse a broad range of grain-based foods. Mr. Moon identified health and wellness as a continuing theme for product development in the snack and bakery categories, both served by Flowers Foods.“There have been plenty of opportunities in the bread side for a decade or more, but currently there are more opportunities on the snack side, along with the challenge of development,” he said. That a snack, normally an indulgence, could also be healthy diet option is not such a foreign idea. As Dr. Olewnik observed, “There are many perceptions that because bread is a staple in the diet, it should be the vehicle to carry additional nutrients. But the perception of snack food is not so good nutritionally, yet the opportunity is there, and work is moving into those product areas. A good example might be age-specific products, for older populations, who don’t have the same calorie requirements as children.”

“Consider what’s happening with snack chips,” Mr. Ingelin said. “Frito-Lay just raised the bar (by switching to trans-fat-free sunflower oil) for bakery items to meet.” The form “added nutrition” could take was also considered by the panel, especially the visibility — or invisibility — of such ingredients. “With bread, nutritional inclusions into the dough can make processing more difficult,” Mr. Ingelin speculated, “but it makes sense to make them clearly visible in the dough.”

Further defining such inclusions, Dr. Olewnik said that baked foods currently use fruit pieces, nuts, whole seeds and other such ingredients. “This also makes the foods more enjoyable products,” she said.

A note of caution, however, was sounded about the sugar content of some inclusions. “There are opportunities in fruit-and-cereal bars,” Mr. Moon said, “but you need to be careful about the amount of sugar these add.” For example, the sugar content could raise issues when such foods are offered in school food service programs.

Discussion then turned to the obesity challenge facing the nation and its food industry. “Bakers are already addressing this with our whole-grain introductions,” Mr. Moon said.“Satiety and how carbohydrate consumption affects it is part of the solution. Other angles include overall wellness, sodium reduction and more soluble fiber.”
It’s not that the baking industry lacks experience with this subject, according to Dr. Olewnik. “We have been back to the reduced-fat trend at least twice recently,” she said.“The problem is when you when you reduce fat, you affect the eating qualities of the food.”

Another answer to the matter of over-consumption, according to Dr. Olewnik, is the development of 100-Cal packs. “Most consumers are not clear about what a serving size is, especially with respect to package size,” Mr. Junge observed. “You’ll see some (new product) introductions soon in this area.”

IMPROVING INGREDIENTS. Success with enzymes as a “natural” answer to anti-staling led a couple of the panelists to the topic of finding other “natural” solutions to problems such as preservatives and antioxidants. Questions and comments from the audience echoed this interest.

“We need to look at ‘natural’ ingredients to determine what ‘natural’ means,” Mr. Ingelin said, citing chemical leavenings and vinegar as examples. “There are many formulators who would like clarification.”

Because enzymes used as anti-staling agents helped “clean up” the ingredient listings on labels, there is high interest today in natural materials that could work as mold inhibitors or leaveners. “Clean labels are becoming a consumer focus,” Dr. Olewnik observed.

“We have seen this in our food service products, too,” Mr. Moon said, stating that many customers ask bakers not to use so-called artificial mold inhibitors. “I agree with the need for natural mold inhibitors,” he continued. “We need an ingredient that would do that on a cost-effective basis.”

Salt replacement was another area pinpointed by the panel for improvement in available ingredients. “We need good alternatives to salt that reduce the sodium content of bread products,” Mr. Moon said.

Even wheat itself came under scrutiny. Earlier in the day, conference participants heard from Bonnie Fernandez of the California Wheat Commission, who discussed West Coast production of wheat. Her remarks cued several questions and comments regarding wheat improvement efforts.

“Flour millers will need to continue to do the great job they are today,” Mr. Moon said. “The breeder needs to look at varieties that perform with more absorption and better gluten performance.”

Dr. Olewnik noted that the issue of genetic modification of wheat “continues to bubble below the surface.” She cited international concerns about this subject yet said that work on this matter continues at various labs.

“Some people think that there is already too much ‘science’ in foods,” Mr. Ingelin commented. Also of importance now is sustainability, he said.

Food miles, another sustainability issue, was noted as a concern. “This idea of the distance food travels from farm to plate will loom large in the future,” Dr. Olewnik predicted. “The image of a field of spinach in a place far, far away is what defines food safety to many consumers today.”

“Nanotechnology is another area with potential significant impact on ingredients,” Dr. Olewnik said. “Users of this technology don’t want to be in the same position as when genetically modified organism (GMO) applications were rolled out. There may be some consumer push back, and this could have a huge impact on ingredients.”

TESTING CONCERNS. Because the AACC conference took place a couple weeks after the adulteration incident that found melamine in gluten used for pet foods, the topic of better testing methods was raised by the panel. A member of the audience cited the situation specifically.

“As with melamine, we can test for things that are out there,” he observed, “but what about testing for what is not there?”

Dr. Olewnik answered by noting the complexity and expense of setting up and using comprehensive testing approaches. “For example, gas chromatograph mass spectrometry is difficult to set up and run, and the instrumentation is expensive for everyday use,” she noted.

“As we get better at measuring, the matter of ‘zero’ becomes more relevant,” she continued, “but we have to get faster. What I’d like to see is better rapid prediction technologies.”

There’s a global element in food safety that has not been there before, according to Mr. Ingelin, which puts the focus on food safety as never before. “People won’t settle for anything less than the best when it comes to food safety,” he said.

Examining the subject of testing, Mr. Ingelin identified a need for improvement in the measurement of texture. He noted an emerging technology that uses acoustics to get a better approximation of texture as it relates to consumer acceptance.

Because the AACC workshop includes teachers and students, the panel was also asked to look at the skill sets now required for success in the lab.

“Some of the best things we do is to teach others,” Mr. Junge said. “Being good scientists ourselves is important to training students to be good scientists themselves. The better we understand the science behind our products, the better we succeed at improving them.

“There isn’t any less creativity in the food service area,” he continued. “But more focus is put on the the culinary area. The real need is to have people with both culinary and food science backgrounds.”

NEXT BIG THING. Sometimes the biggest challenge in bakery formulating is the matter of getting something off the bench and into production. “Today, it goes beyond the product itself,” Mr. Ingelin said. “There is much more of a defined process.”

“Developing today’s many different products and maintaining them at high quality is increasingly challenging at the plant level,” Mr. Moon observed. “But I have to say that we are getting more cooperation than ever before from the plants. We focus (implementation of our new products) on the plants that have the capability to do the products. We don’t put our new products in all our plants at once.”

“With the push to get products out to market quickly, it is difficult to come up with new, innovative products,” Dr. Olewnik said. Mr. Ingelin added, “However, that push will always be there.”

What will be the next big trend or issue in food product development? Panelists had a variety of answers.
“I see things such as sodium content and glycemic index labeling,” Dr. Olewnik said.“I asked Don Pickering of our staff to comment, and he said he gets questions about the word ‘natural’ five times more often than any other topic in food labeling.”

“Formulating without sodium is a very challenging thing, so is glutenfree baking,” Mr. Moon said. “Also, we see food safety issues becoming even more critical in times to come.”

Food service attracted special attention. “As a food service company, we offer a variety of choices for consumers who wish to practice moderation in their diets,” Mr. Junge said, noting that his company continues to evaluate various nutrition options as they arise.

Tortillas, a relatively new category for the grain-based foods industry, continue to grow, as Mr. Moon noted. “And we should consider the Asian population more. This has not been much examined yet, but we need to figure out what fits that population segment’s needs.

“There are more challenges ahead of us,” he summarized.