The message has been clear for some time: Americans need to consume more whole grains. But they certainly are challenged with doing so, as options in both retail and food service have been quite limited. The good news is ingredient suppliers continue to cultivate innovative whole grain ingredients, enabling formulators to deliver the grain in new formats.

Culinologists are taking a three-pronged approach to whole grains. They are redesigning grain-based foods, replacing refined wheat flour with whole grain flour alternatives. They also are including more “whole” whole grains in side dishes, soups and meat alternatives. And finally, with some applications, they are sneaking it in, as in the case of breadings and smoothies.

The message to consume more whole grains has evolved in the past decade. In 2005, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended people “choose fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains often.” For 2010, the guidelines were reworded, specifically stating that at least half of all grains should be consumed as whole grains and to increase whole grain intake by replacing refined grains with whole grains.

The National School Lunch Program embraced the recommendations, modifying its regulations to require that at least half of the grain-based foods served to children be “whole grain-rich.” Whole grain-rich foods may contain less than 100% whole grains, but generally contain at least 51% whole grains. By 2014, the program will require all grain-based foods served in schools be whole grain-rich. This has product developers aggressively working whole grains into all recipes.

Whole grains defined

The Dietary Guidelines say whole grains must include the entire grain seed, usually called the kernel. The kernel consists of three components — the bran, germ and endosperm. If the kernel has been cracked, crushed or flaked, then, to be called a “whole grain” a food must retain the same relative proportions of the components as they exist in the intact grain. Whole grains are consumed either as a single food or as an ingredient in foods. Examples include buckwheat, bulgur, millet, oatmeal, quinoa, rolled oats, brown or wild rice, sorghum, whole grain barley, whole rye and whole wheat.

“Whole grains are simply the grains of various crops that still contain all the edible parts in their original proportions,” said David Deblauwe, regional product manager of bakery flavors and yeast for Puratos, Cherry Hill, NJ. “Whole grain foods are important for our diet because they contain more than fiber; they’re also packed with protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other plant nutrients.

“There is strong scientific evidence that whole grains are protective against chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases and Type 2 diabetes. Additional benefits of consuming whole grains include improved weight management and lower risk of certain cancers. Whole grain guidelines differ worldwide, but it is generally agreed most of your grain intake should come from whole grains. In the United States, it is recommended to consume at least three servings per day. One serving is equal to 16 g of whole grains, so at least 48 g should be consumed daily. Many of us do not eat enough whole grains. In order to increase consumption, people want whole grain products that are easy to identify, widely available, simple to eat or prepare, and with excellent sensory qualities.”

Making the transition

Refined wheat flour long has been the flour of choice by grain-based food manufacturers, as it is not only economical but it is also highly functional from a performance perspective.

“In bakery products, wheat remains the primary grain source because its functionality is so important to achieving the volume and texture we have become accustomed to in those types of products,” said Brook Carson, technical product manager with ADM Milling, Overland Park, Kas. “While all whole grain flours have similarities, they each have unique characteristics to consider when replacing refined wheat flour. These include impact on texture, absorption and strength. Balancing the granulation of the whole grain, the amount of water required and the added time to allow for proper absorption are all ways to resolve changes in the finished product texture.

“Whole grain flours can also affect the flavor of the finished product. Flavor differences are typically due to the additional tannins found in the bran of the grain. Whiter whole grain varieties typically contain fewer tannins, which results in a less bitter taste. Taste can also be overcome with added sweetness or with a masking agent.”

Each type of whole grain flour brings unique attributes to products and may be used in blends to achieve optimal flavor, texture and labeling claims, explained Don Trouba, director of marketing for ConAgra Mills, Omaha. “For example, we offer whole wheat flour with the taste, texture and appearance of refined white flour, so it is excellent on its own for mainstream applications or used in blends with other whole grain flours that provide flavor and textural sensory attributes. Our ancient grains flour blends are getting a lot of attention in the snack category because they add culinary adventure and an interesting story for the label. There are gluten-free options, too.”

A “whiter” whole grain that is catching the attention of product developers is sorghum.

“Around the world, sorghum is used in food products including porridges, bread, cookies, tortillas and even extruded commercial products,” Ms. Carson said. “Color varieties of sorghum range from dark brown to red to white, with various benefits and flavors associated with each.

“Processed similar to wheat flour, our white sorghum flour is especially appealing to formulators who want to boost whole grain content, invisibly. It is white in color and has a bland flavor that does not add an unfamiliar or distinctive taste. It is also gluten-free, but because formulating gluten-free bakery items can be challenging, the whole grain aspect often gets overlooked. Whole grain sorghum flour provides protein and fiber contents that are twice the level of brown rice flour, the common choice for whole grain gluten-free products.”

Whole grain goodness is even possible in desserts.

“We offer a whole wheat cake mix that allows for whole grains to be delivered through sweet treats, including cakes, muffins and sweet breads,” Mr. Deblauwe said.

And when flavor and texture are desired in bread, baguettes, rolls and bagels, “We offer a whole grain system that is composed of grains soaked and boiled in a mild natural fermentation flavor,” Mr. Deblauwe added. “This gives the grains a delicious, full-flavor taste and keeps them soft during the baking process. It is available in a single-grain variety or as a combination of different whole grains and seeds. The system is ready-to-use and can be added straight to the dough or batter at the end of mixing in order to avoid damaging of the grains.”

Overcoming formulation hurdles

Pizza is one of the easiest grain-based foods to boost whole grain content, as the cheese, sauce and other toppings may help mask any off flavors or textures in the crust.

“Whole grain wheat flour is typically used to maintain the texture that consumers expect in their pizza crust, but any type of whole grain flour could be used,” Ms. Carson said. “The gluten in the whole wheat flour is required for the strong chewy texture. Other grains could be added in addition to provide a unique product.”

Beth Arndt, director of R&D at ConAgra Mills, said, “Batters and breadings are another area that’s showing tremendous promise. Whole grain flours allow for a ‘made with whole grain’ claim. Some whole grains will also provide exotic flavors and textures for premium product positioning.”

One of the most significant challenges when replacing refined wheat flour with whole grain flour in any application is the difference in rate of hydration.

“It is also often necessary to adjust other ingredients for optimum texture and making small changes to processing steps,” Ms. Carson said. “For any whole grain baked product, when whole grain is introduced to the formulation, gluten strength is diminished. Adding wheat proteins, such as wheat protein isolate, can help to improve the sheeting and dough handling, reduce breakage and adjust texture and stack height.”

Ms. Arndt added, “The impact of whole grains on bakery formulas, processing and final product attributes is influenced by the inclusion level and type of whole grain ingredients. For example, our proprietary whole wheat flour that has the texture, taste and appearance of white flour, makes transitioning to whole grains simple. At 25% to 30% inclusion levels, it delivers meaningful whole grain nutrition without having to modify formulas. When included at higher levels, it provides a much more mainstream taste experience when compared to traditional whole wheat flour.

“The main factors that product developers must be aware of when changing to partial or full whole grain formulas is that whole grains absorb more liquid, require less mixing and have lower tolerance to over-mixing. It may also be necessary to make adjustments to the baking time and temperature to ensure that the product is thoroughly baked without being overly browned.”

Using the 'whole' grain

In addition to formulating with whole grain flours, product developers increasingly are exploring the use of “whole” whole grains. The National Restaurant Association’s 2013 What’s Hot survey, which includes the responses from more than 1,800 chefs, ranked non-wheat noodles, such as quinoa, rice or buckwheat, as the No. 1 trend for the sides/starches category, and quinoa, alone, as the No. 3 trend for sides/starches. In addition, the survey placed ancient grains as the No. 5 trend in other food items/ingredients.

“There is an opportunity for growth for whole grains as meal centers or side dishes,” Ms. Carson said. “A variety of whole grains are being used in pastas, pilafs and salads.”

When it comes to true whole grains, there has been little activity beyond plating anything more than brown rice, said Joe Gozzi, director of sales and product development with Village Harvest, an Otis McAllister company, San Francisco.

“This is typically because preparing and cooking whole grains can be challenging,” he said. “But we have eliminated that barrier. We use a cryogenic freezing process on pre-cooked grains.

“By flash freezing the whole grains at temperatures around -300°F, each individual grain is frozen in suspended animation, keeping the integrity of every kernel. They are captured at their peak condition, while still in motion, so no liquid is frozen, no starch is released and the result is perfectly cooked whole grains every time. The grains pour like cereal.”

Food manufacturers and chefs alike may scoop, pour and serve what is needed without wasting time, money or effort.

“For prepared packaged meals, our whole grains can be simply added as one of the many components and either left frozen or allowed to thaw for a refrigerated heat-and-eat meal,” Mr. Gozzi said. “For chefs, our frozen whole grains take the guesswork out of perfectly cooked whole grains. They’re quick and easy to warm in one container. That means no timers, no ratios and a lot less labor for cooks and less pots and pans clogging up the dish station.”

The cryogenically frozen whole grains are available as single grains to be served alone or for on-site blending.

“We also offer blends such as red quinoa with brown rice and wheatberry with barley,” Mr. Gozzi said.

Industrial and food service capacities range from 2,000-lb totes to cases of 30-lb bags. They have an 18-month frozen shelf life.

“Lots of products and menu items are described as being ‘made with whole grain’ or have ‘a serving of whole grain,’ but our products are whole grain and that’s a big difference,” Mr. Gozzi said. “We want to make it easy to eat whole grains. We want to deliver health. We want to start a whole grain revolution.”

Vincent Horville, executive chef at the Metropolitan Club of Washington, DC, and a frequent White House event chef, said he makes a vegan chili that includes numerous whole grains and legumes.

“I finish it off with a chopped nut cilantro and a medley of dried apples, berries and dates," he said. “The finished product delivers more than a serving of whole grains and is an excellent source of fiber.

“Some whole grains also allow for a gluten-free approach to creating grain-based side dishes, which has become a common request by clientele. I make a very popular tabouleh using quinoa seasoned with walnut lemon oil.”

Regardless of the application and the grains, the only way to innovate is to start working with the grains, Ms. Ardnt said.

“There are so many more whole grain options available than from just a few years ago,” she said. “Whole grains can help developers differentiate their products in terms of flavor, texture or visual appeal, or simply help Americans increase their whole grain intake.”