'Pasta is a special issue'

by Jeff Gelski
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Whole grain-rich pasta received a special exemption from the school meal standards for a reason.

“Pasta is a special issue,” said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Whole Grains Council, Boston.

Schools in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national school meals programs must offer only whole grain-rich products starting this school year. To qualify as whole grain-rich, all grains and bread in school meal programs must contain at least 50% whole grain meal and/or flour with the remaining grains being enriched.

For now, that requirement does not always apply to pasta. On May 20 the U.S.D.A. said schools that demonstrate significant challenges in serving whole grain-rich pastas may continue to serve traditional enriched pasta products for up to two more years. The U.S.D.A. cited problems with pasta. Some whole grain-rich products did not hold together when produced in large quantities for school cafeterias. Lasagna and noodles degraded easily during preparation and were difficult to use in larger-scale cooking operations.

Ms. Harriman said equipment is an issue. Some schools have a warming oven but not a stove. Personnel at those schools say the pasta breaks down after it is cooked and then held for two or three hours in the warming oven.

New requirements also say each student must have a certain amount of meat and a certain amount of pasta in each pasta meal item, Ms. Harriman added. Previously, one student might receive a little more meat sauce while another student might receive a little more pasta.

“Now they have to be accountable for making sure everybody gets a balanced meal,” she said of school food service personnel.

For this issue, public schools in Boston have found rotini works better than spaghetti, Ms. Harriman said. Long spaghetti strands are more difficult to serve in precise amounts.

Elizabeth Arndt, a research fellow for Ardent Mills, Denver, said several issues should be addressed in pasta with whole grains.

“The addition of whole grain flours into pasta affects the absorption and mixing requirements of the pasta dough, which must be adjusted to optimize the end-product quality,” she said. “The pasta dough must still have the ability to maintain its integrity when sheeted or extruded to form shapes. Pastas made with whole grain generally require a shorter cook time and are more prone to breakage or mushy texture if overcooked.”

The cooked pasta needs to have the characteristic al dente texture and hold up well over time, which has been a challenge in segments such as school food service, she said.

“We’ve had the privilege of working directly with school food service companies to address these issues and are excited that new products will be coming on the market soon,” Dr. Arndt said.

Ms. Harriman said she saw reasons for optimism at the School Nutrition Association’s annual meeting in July in Boston. Windsor Foods displayed whole grain lasagna noodle roll-ups. Barilla and Dakota Growers Pasta both had whole grain-rich solutions for pasta, she said.

Dakota Growers Pasta, St. Louis Park, Minn., recently partnered with the Northern Crops Institute, North Dakota State University and the Grains for Health Foundation. The partnership resulted in “Whole Lot Better” pasta that is 51% whole grain enriched. Made with durum wheat, the pasta is available in rotini, penne rigate, elbow and spaghetti.

JM Swank, a business of ConAgra Foods, Inc., has offered Ultragrain pasta for school food service. It is 51% whole grain and comes in such shapes as penne, macaroni, rotini, lasagna and spaghetti.

Ardent Mills offers Ultragrain hard whole wheat flour, which works well as a replacement for durum wheat semolina in pasta, said Angela Ichwan, senior director of research and technical for Ardent Mills.

“At 51% replacement, Ultragrain yields pasta that has a smooth texture and lighter color compared to pasta made with traditional whole wheat flour from red wheat and delivers 12 grams of whole grain per ½ cup cooked pasta,” Ms. Ichwan said.

Multigrain combinations also work well in pasta, Ms. Ichwan said. Pasta may be made with a combination of 15% ancient grains five-grain flour blend (amaranth, quinoa, millet, sorghum and teff), 36% Ultragrain hard and the rest durum wheat semolina.

“This multigrain formula takes advantage of the functionality of Ultragrain and durum semolina yet delivers on-trend ancient grains in a way that help manages functionality, flavor and cost,” Ms. Ichwan said.

Another pasta formula combination that boosts fiber is 15% Sustagrain, 36% Ultragrain hard with the balance as durum semolina. Sustagrain has more than 30% total dietary fiber.

Colleen Zammer, director of product marketing for Bay State Milling, Quincy, Mass., said whole grain-rich pasta may involve rice noodles, whole durum or even sprouted grains.

“There are a lot of opportunities in the pasta category for whole grain,” she said.

Whole grain opportunities exist for other school meal items, too.

Bay State Milling offers Easy GrAin pizza crust, a blend that is 53% whole grain on flour basis. It is produced with Bay State Milling’s GrainEssentials extra fine white whole wheat flour, which results in a lighter crust color and milder flavor profile when compared to traditional whole wheat, according to the company.

QualiTech, Chaska, Minn., offers Flav-R-Grain ingredients that may lead to delivering whole grain claims for corn-based products such as tacos and tortillas. The lineup of whole grain (corn) Flavor-ettes includes maple, chocolate, blueberry and strawberry. Flav-R-Grain is a granular product designed to enhance the appearance of multi-grain products and offer a roasted corn/nut flavor and aroma, according to QualiTech.
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