The whole grain experience

by FoodBusinessNews.net Staff
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What do whole grains look like to the professionals responsible for today’s "new generation" of whole wheat and whole grain baked foods? So far, it’s been very interesting, very challenging, very rewarding and very long term, according to a number of key baking industry research and development managers.

When the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 recommended daily consumption of at least three 1-oz servings of whole grains, the baking industry felt the impact — and potential — right away. Six months later, on July 18, 2005, both Interstate Bakeries Corp. and Sara Lee Corp. introduced new whole wheat and made with whole wheat bread varieties, respectively. Today, the drum beat of new whole wheat and whole grain product announcements continues loud, steady and unabated.

"I believe whole grains to be a hard, solid trend, not a fad," said Andre Biane, vice-president, research and development, Sara Lee Food & Beverage, Downers Grove, Ill.

Hard and easier

American consumers like their white bread, especially its texture and flavor. That was the first hurdle faced by the baking industry’s research and development community.

"The most difficult aspect of developing the ‘new generation’ of whole grain products is making sure that you get the taste and texture that consumers want," observed Theresa Cogswell, vice-president, research and development, Interstate Bakeries Corp., Kansas City. The company’s first such product, Wonder White Bread Fans, was made with 100% hard white winter wheat whole grain flour. Different consumer constituencies had to be considered, as well as the raw materials themselves. For example, Sara Lee targeted Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White at consumers who prefer conventional white bread, so formulators working on whole grain products had to match white bread’s flavor, taste and texture expectations, Mr. Biane said.

"The target consumer for our Hearty & Delicious whole wheat, however, wants the dense, coarse texture," he said. "We had to design the products to meet those differing expectations."

Thomasville, Ga.-based Flowers Foods, Inc. opted to launch a portfolio of six Nature’s Own products all at once, each with a different combination of grains.

"The hardest part was getting good, fine texture without too much graininess in the crumb," said Charles Moon, vice-president, research and development/ technical services, Flowers Foods. "That was a challenge. We had to get the right mix of whole grains in the product. This took a couple months to solve."

Incorporating whole grain flour into tortilla dough raised similar issues of appearance, texture and flavor, said Charles Kraut, Ph.D., vice-president, quality assurance and product development, Casa de Oro, Omaha, Neb.

"There are many suppliers of whole grain and multigrain blends that all provide different attributes," he said. "Finding the right combination takes time."

Some aspects of the whole grain trend proved easier than anticipated. For one thing, it energized people throughout the bakery organizations — far different from the low-carb days.

"I would have to say that the easiest aspect of whole grains has been the response from the people in our plants," Mr. Moon said. "They embraced the challenge and wanted to make good products. From the start, they were very excited about bringing the new whole grain products to our customers."

The motivational effect of rapid consumer approval proved gratifying for Casa de Oro.

"The actual sampling and customer approval process seemed to proceed on a very fast timeline," Dr. Kraut noted. "When customers see what they like, new product introductions can move quickly."

Multiple-plant challenge

In each case, more than one bakery was involved, thus multiplying the usual pitfalls of moving from research bench to production floor. Flowers decided to use only two of its plants to introduce its new products. Mr. Moon explained that the plants selected were the ones most suited to multiple-item introduction. Even so, the company had to purchase a new set of pans and make other changes.

"We confined the whole grain products to two plants so that we could control quality and distribution aspects," Mr. Moon said. "We wanted to make sure the quality was consistent." He noted the possibility that the whole grain line may be extended to at least one other plant in the future.

"It is difficult to get the right volume," he continued, "and these products present more challenges than usual in the new product process."

Plant capability plays a vital role in getting the whole grain show on the road.

"Obviously the capabilities of different plants dictate what process changes and adjustments need to be made," Dr. Kraut said. "Product developers need to be familiar with and understand how equipment in different environments will respond and be ready to make the proper line adjustments to make the product work."

Ideally, plant and process changes should be kept to a minimum.

"While the amount of time you mix a recipe may change, you are still using the same mixer," Ms. Cogswell explained. "Not every piece of equipment in every facility is the same. When you have a multi-plant network, you need to make sure your formulation has enough processing tolerance that you can continually satisfy your quality standards regardless of which bakery is baking the product."

Once tortilla formulas were settled, Casa de Oro found the production process relatively easy to install in the plant, Dr. Kraut said.

"However, small procedural changes were necessary to bring our product on line quickly," he noted.

Plant and processing economics also are part of the whole grain recipe.

"We needed to consider the economic impact such as the need for these products to run slower on our lines," Mr. Biane said. "We had to consider what effect 50%-slower or 30%-slower speeds would have." Such analysis had to be factored into product design parameters.

Sara Lee facilitates its product development process with cross-functional teams. These include members drawn from R.&D., supply chain, manufacturing, procurement and other departments at all levels, including senior management.

"This way, we are able to raise potential issues earlier rather than later," Mr. Biane explained. Whole grain product development followed the same path.

"By focusing everyone on the goal, everyone could see the progress at each stage," he added.

Product launches happening fast

Bakers introduced their first "new generation" whole grain products in just six months. Such a fast pace is highly unusual, but so is this category’s enormous potential.

"The needs and wants of the marketplace really dictate speed and success of new product concepts," Dr. Kraut observed. "When the opportunity window opens, and prototype products are available, things happen quickly."

Even so, time can seem to be at a premium.

"Starting sooner doesn’t really answer the problem since each customer wants something slightly or even radically different from the others to achieve differentiation in the marketplace," Dr. Kraut noted. "Each development effort poses its own unique set of issues." Whole grain proved no different.

"I’d guess that every organization (developing whole grain products) would want more time," Mr. Biane mused. "It’s a truism that you can get to 80% quickly, but the next 20% usually needs much more in-depth work. Time constraints often force us to move forward."

Mr. Moon described a different experience at Flowers.

"We worked well ahead of the launch date, and we had enough time for trials in the plant," he related. "This allowed us to achieve the quality we needed the first time out. And because we were producing the product in only two plants, the development process was more controllable."

Strong supplier participation

"The natural-source materials in 100% whole wheat bread are some of the most challenging that we use," Mr. Biane said.

Several important developments from suppliers enhanced speed-to-market for whole grain baked foods. One was the introduction of whole wheat flour milled from hard white winter wheat. This flour is much lighter in color than conventional whole wheat flour, and it is sweeter in taste because its bran lacks the bitter red pigment.

"There’s good choice out there," Dr. Kraut said. "I have been impressed with the wide range of ingredient choices, particularly in the multigrain area. There are many combinations of grains and particulate sizes already available, which makes screening move along quickly."

Nonetheless, plenty of room for improvement exists.

"The biggest help we can ask for is that ingredient suppliers be familiar with the nuances of tortilla manufacture, so their ingredient recommendations don’t conflict with process capability," Dr. Kraut offered. "For instance, pressed tortillas cannot contain large or hard particulates, which can tear up expensive press belts. True, such ingredients might widen the choices for appearance and texture contributions, but they are not currently acceptable from a process standpoint."

There’s also the matter of predictability of performance.

"When you deal with a commodity crop product, Mother Nature can deliver differences year-to-year and even within a year," Mr. Biane said. "I see a trend among our product developers to seek deeper understanding of our own processes, and I would like to see our suppliers do the same."

Mr. Moon said achieving the right combination of grains for each of its new products was a challenge to Flowers’ suppliers, yet he praised the company’s vendors for seeing the potential of whole grain products.

"They recognized the need for these products," he said. "And they came up with ingredients such as dough conditioners to support whole grain formulas. We would like to see more from them, more suggestions and more novel ingredients."

More to come

With many whole grain products on the market now, each company anticipates more to come.

"We focused our work on offering high levels of whole grains and some ‘made with organic’ options," Mr. Moon said. "Yes, we anticipate more whole grain products."

Science backs up this optimism.

"The more science that surfaces about the benefits of whole grains, the more credence that it lends to the 2005 revision of federal dietary guidelines," Mr. Biane noted. "That’s why whole grain is a trend, not a fad."

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