When creating a high-end grain-based food product, manufacturers may want to avoid any addition that resembles the term "as plain as vanilla." But what if that vanilla comes from an island in the Pacific Ocean, is sun-cured and carries an intriguing name, say "Tahitian Gold"? That vanilla may more resemble a premium ingredient, or one that may cost more but also give a finished product more prestige, quality and a higher price point.

Growing regions, processing techniques and certifications all may lend credence to an ingredient’s premium aura. Besides pure vanilla beans, dark chocolate and agave nectar are two other potentially premium ingredients.

250 flavoring compounds

Grain-based foods manufacturers may want to know the potential benefits in choosing natural vanilla over synthetic vanilla.

"Using natural vanilla rounds off baked goods a lot more than synthetics," said Manuata Martin, president of Tahitian Gold Co., Inc., Torrance, Calif. "I taste it right away. A synthetic vanilla contains only one compound, which is very dull to me. Natural vanilla contains more than 250 flavoring compounds.

"For high-end products, it’s definitely the right choice."

Vanilla bean prices have fallen since earlier this decade, when bad weather in Madagascar cut into supply, Mr. Martin said. The United States imported about 5 billion lbs of vanilla beans in 2007, which compared to about 1.5 billion lbs in 2004, according to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Pacific Island Imports, which has sold Tahitian Gold brand vanilla for 15 years, is in the process of changing its company name to its brand name, Tahitian Gold.

The company directly imports vanilla beans from such countries as Tahiti, Madagascar, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, India and Uganda. The company manufactures pure vanilla extracts, ground vanilla beans, vanilla bean pastes and a variety of other products with vanilla beans.

Whole vanilla bean paste contains ground vanilla beans, vanilla extract and a small amount of xanthan gum. It may be ideal for baking since it is not as labor-intensive as working with whole vanilla beans, Mr. Martin said.

The company’s sun-curing process yields vanilla beans that are dark brown, oily, highly fragrant and intensely flavored.

"Curing can vary tremendously between companies," Mr. Martin said. "I like to obtain as dark and oily of beans as possible."

Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, Waukegan, Ill., showcased certified organic Madagascar Bourbon pure vanilla powder along with organic Madagascar Bourbon pure vanilla extract and organic Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans at the All Things Organic Show earlier in June in Chicago. The company’s cold extraction process may take up to five weeks.

"This time-consuming procedure slowly and gently extracts the maximum flavor from the vanilla beans without heat-damaging the delicate volatile compounds," the company said. "The result is an organic vanilla powder with a creamy, sweet, smooth, mellow vanilla flavor that customers worldwide have come to associate with Nielsen-Massey’s premium products."

Lighter than honey

Another premium ingredient may need more consumer education than vanilla beans. Matt Salis and his wife, Sheri, have used agave nectar as a sweetener for five years in some of their bread. They own four Great Harvest Bread Co. franchises in the Denver area.

"We spend a lot of time explaining to customers what agave nectar is," Mr. Salis said. "They assume it’s something cool and neat. So they often ask us about it."

Besides agave nectar, Mr. Salis and his wife also use honey and molasses as sweeteners. Agave nectar has lower moisture content than honey and gives the bread more of a crumbly texture.

Agave nectar makes bread a lighter color than honey does.

"That visual makes a big difference," Mr. Salis said.

He and his wife use agave nectar solely in whole wheat bread. Besides the lighter color, the agave nectar also may make the whole wheat bread appear similar to white bread because the sweetener helps the bread rise and gives it more air pockets.

"Agave nectar has won its place in a handful of breads," Mr. Salis said. "It’s the addictive ingredient in a number of our breads."

He buys the sweetener from a Colorado supplier.

"It’s an expensive product, but the price for us has not fluctuated at all," he said.

Honey prices fluctuate more, but agave nectar has cost more the last couple of years, Mr. Salis said. He said honey prices have ranged from $1 to $1.70 per lb while agave nectar prices range from $1.30 to $1.50 per lb.

Wholesome Sweeteners, Sugar Land, Texas, now offers organic blue agave nectar from Jalisco, Mexico. Blue agave (Agave tequilana var. Weber) is a member of the Amarylis family. It’s the same plant used in the production of tequila. The blue agave plants used by Wholesome Sweeteners are grown to U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standards.

Cooking the plant’s inulin turns it into nectar. Wholesome Sweeteners offers light blue agave nectar, which is heated to 161 degrees Fahrenheit, and raw blue agave nectar, which has lower temperatures and slower cooking times.

Agave nectar may replace sugar since it is 25% sweeter than sugar and low-glycemic, according to Wholesome Sweeteners. Since agave nectar adds liquid, formulators should reduce other liquids in the recipe by one-third when using it as a sugar replacement. They also should reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit and bake for a few minutes longer.

SunOpta Global Organic Ingredients, Aptos, Calif., is another agave nectar supplier. The agave nectar works as both a natural preservative and water preserver in baked foods, said Hendrik Rabbie, a sales manager. The Japanese market uses agave nectar in cakes such as sponge cakes, he said, while the North American market primarily has used the sweetener in food bars.

Agave syrup is about 25% sweeter than sugar, but sugar is dry while agave syrup has 25% humidity, Mr. Rabbie said.

"So bakers who use less agave than sugar might need to increase the amount of agave to get the same sweetness level," he said. "They have to factor the humidity level."

Dipping and drizzling chocolate

While agave nectar may sweeten premium products, chocolate may add indulgent appeal.

"Manufacturers are creating decadent products with the addition of rich, indulgent chocolate," said Courtney LeDrew, marketing manager for Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate. "Snacks and baked goods can be enhanced by dipping or drizzling them with chocolate or chocolate can be added as an inclusion in a chunk or drop. Manufacturers can also include cocoa powder to give their full item chocolate flavor."

She added compounds may enhance grain-based foods in a multitude of ways, such as enrobing, striping or partially dipping a product.

"There are even a few bakers who are using wafers, which are larger than a standard drop or chip, as an inclusion to create an indulgent cookie or bar," she said.

Wilbur Chocolate, a subsidiary of Cargill based in Lititz, Pa., offers wafers in the form of Wilbur W753 white confectionery, Wilbur W754 cocoa confectionery, Wilbur W755 dark confectionery and Wilbur W796 peanut-flavored. A Wilbur line of colored and flavored compounds for bakery applications includes cherry-flavored drops, yogurt-flavored drops, butterscotch-flavored drops and cinnamon drops.

Incorrect use of chocolate may bring imperfections in, or even ruin to, a premium product. Formulators should remember chocolate is a dispersion of fine solid particles such as cocoa, sugar and cocoa butter fat, Ms. LeDrew said. The cocoa fat is solid fat at room temperature but melts in your mouth.

"A major step in the chocolate process is tempering where the cocoa butter is crystallized to the most stable form," Ms. LeDrew said. "Well-tempered chocolate will contract when it is cooled and therefore can be easily removed from a mould. It will have good brittleness when broken into pieces.

"If chocolate is incorrectly tempered after it has been melted, it can sometimes result in what is called fat bloom where it has a whitish film."

Barry Callebaut, Zurich, Switzerland, differentiates its chocolate ingredients through such ways as certification and growing region.

Origin chocolates are made with cocoa beans harvested in one specific country or growing area known for its soil, climate and habitat. Barry Callebaut’s country origin range comprises Malaysia, Java, Colombia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Congo, Arriba, Ghana, Togo, Brazil, Madagascar, Santo Domingo, Ecuador, Venezuela, Sao Tome and Tanzania.

The company’s chocolates may be certified as kosher, organic and Fairtrade. Earlier this year Barry Callebaut, which has a U.S. office in Chicago, launched ProBenefit, an industrial chocolate enhanced with probiotic bacterial cultures that help to restore the balance of intestinal flora, for the North American market. The product is available in dark and milk chocolate and may work in a range of food manufacturing applications. The probiotic strains used are Lactobacillus helveticus, Rosell-52 and Bifidobacterium longum, Rosell-175.

Fruits and nuts also may work in tandem with chocolate in high-end grain-based foods. This year the Quaker Oats Co. introduced True Delights Granola Bars that come with a suggested retail price of $3.49 for a 5-count box. They contain such ingredients as real fruit, whole nuts and dark chocolate. They come in the three varieties of Toasted Coconut Banana Macadamia Nut, Dark Chocolate Raspberry Almond and Honey Roasted Cashew Mixed Berry.

In premium chocolates, Barry Callebaut offers a range of giandujas (finely ground mixtures of chocolate and nut butter) and nut pastes. The company has 10 varieties in its line of white chocolates and fruit: lime, banana, blood orange, strawberry, cranberry, passion fruit, blackberry, elderberry, grape skin and bilberry.

When using any kind of special ingredient in a premium product, it might be a good idea to mention the ingredient on the front of packaging or even in the product’s name. Mr. Salis of Great Harvest Bread Co. said he learned not to get too cute with the names of products. He and his wife once sold a bread variety with oats, blueberries and hazelnuts and called it "Honey Nut Berry Oats." After they changed the name to "Blueberry Hazelnut," they sold three times as much.

"If you have a high-end ingredient, call it that," Mr. Salis said. "Don’t get all cute on the name."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Milling and Baking News, June 30, 2009, starting on Page 19. Click
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