According to a study released in 2009 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity in America has an annual price tag of $147 billion in healthcare costs. This should come as no surprise, since two thirds of adults and one third of children in the U.S. are considered obese or overweight. To combat this costly crisis, consumers and food producers are taking a long look at the health benefits of whole grains.

The momentum behind increasing whole-grain consumption has been building ever since the introduction of the USDA’s revised “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” in 2005. The new guidelines were a boon to whole-grain marketers; they spelled out for the first time that at least half of grain consumption should be from whole-grain sources.

Although whole-grain consumption has grown by 20% since 2005, there is plenty of room for improvement. According to Julie Miller Jones, Ph.D., chair of the Whole Grains Task Force at the AACC, “Women are only getting 12-14g of whole grains per day, while men are averaging 20-25g per day. This amounts to one third and one half of the daily requirements for women and men, respectively.” More startling was a 2006 Tufts University study, which estimated 40% of Americans ate no whole grains at all.

In spite of this “whole-grain gap,” new whole-grain food products are constantly emerging. From April 2009-March 2010, the Innova Database recorded over 1,500 food and drink launches in the U.S. with a whole-grain positioning. This represents an increase of 7% over the prior year and a whopping 400% increase over the number of products recorded at the time the guidelines were published. Whole-grain product introductions in the bread category have single-handedly revived the entire bread market, following the low-carb debacle. According to Nielsen Company, fresh whole-grain bread was the fastest-growing category in years and experienced “double-digit” growth in 2008 to reach $881.9 million.

New product development opportunities abound for companies trying to capitalize on consumer interest in foods that are less processed, more natural and offer more distinctive flavors. Grains such as oats, rye, barley, wild rice, buckwheat, triticale, millet and sorghum are all underutilized commodities today. Less common whole grains, collectively known as ancient grains, like quinoa, amaranth, emmer and teff, are largely unexplored new product opportunities.

A Whole Grain by Any Other Name
Technically speaking, grains are the seeds of domesticated grasses and fall within the Poaceae (or Gramineous) family. The seed is comprised of bran, germ and starchy endosperm. If the grain has been processed (e.g., cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded and/or cooked), the whole grain should deliver the same relative proportion of nutrients found in the original grain seed to provide maximum benefit. This is because the potential mechanisms for the health effects of whole grains are not fully understood.  Nutrition and health researchers believe it is likely that whole-grain consumption has protective benefits beyond the effects of the individual components. This also has worked to bolster the consumption of less-processed whole grains.

When grain is refined, most of the bran and some of the germ is removed, resulting in losses of fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, trace minerals, unsaturated fat and about 75% of the phytochemicals. Compared to refined grains, most whole grains provide more protein, fiber and other traditional nutrients, including calcium, magnesium and potassium, as well as many phytochemicals.

While other widely used food products, such as those derived from oilseeds (sunflower seeds, flax), legumes (soybeans) and roots (arrowroot), can play an important role in the diet, they do not meet the FDA definition of a “whole grain.” However, several “pseudo-grains” are often included on whole grain lists, since they are similar to true cereal grains in nutrition profile, preparation and consumption. These include amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat. While chia and flax are technically oil seeds, they are also deserving of special mention, due to their nutritional profile and growing popularity.

To One’s Health
FDA-approved health claims have done much to spur development of whole-grain products. Two allowed claims concern fiber (largely found in the bran of whole grains). The first claim states, “Diets rich in whole-grain foods and other plant foods, and low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may help reduce the risk of heart disease.” In the second instance, in 2006, the FDA announced barley foods providing at least 0.75g of soluble fiber could also claim they reduced the risk of coronary heart disease.

Many of the benefits of consuming whole-grain foods come from the plant’s fiber. Fiber is the portion of the plant that cannot be digested or absorbed. The most frequent marketing claim for whole-grain foods is a statement that the product is a “good” (2.5-4.9g) or “excellent” (5g or more) source of fiber, per serving. Manufacturers may also make factual statements about whole grains on their product labels, such as contains “10g of whole grains” or “100% whole-grain oatmeal.”

The Whole Grain Council has also raised awareness. This non-profit, consumer advocacy group works to increase the consumption of whole grains through education and promotion--their familiar Whole Grain Stamp symbol is on over 3,000 products.

Diets rich in whole-grain foods are helpful in reducing the risks of heart disease, certain types of cancer, type 2 diabetes and, as mentioned earlier, weight management. Fiber is classified as either soluble or insoluble, depending on whether the body can partially digest it or cannot digest it at all. Both confer beneficial physiological effects, but are different. Soluble fiber delays transit time through the intestinal tract, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease by lowering total and LDL cholesterol. Insoluble fiber passes through the intestines intact, providing bulk to promote bowel regularity and speeding up the removal of toxic wastes. Fiber promotes weight loss/maintenance, since it promotes satiety (hunger satisfaction).

Raining Grains
Modern wheat (Triticum aestivum) has its roots in three varieties of ancient grains harvested in Europe and the Near East for over 9,000 years: spelt, einkorn and emmer. Einkorn is not cultivated in the U.S., but spelt and emmer are, with 14,000 acres reportedly under production in 2007. In Europe, spelt is harvested in the hard dough stage and roasted. Called Grünkern, it is considered a gourmet food and is used in breads, cereal, soups and casseroles. It has a deeper, richer color than whole-wheat flour and a distinctly nutty flavor.

Emmer is more commonly known by its Italian name, farro. Confusingly, farro is often mistakenly called spelt. Farro also has a nutty flavor and wheat berry consistency that accommodates a variety of flavors and makes excellent grain-based salads. Farro is usually boiled in salted water, then allowed to steep to fully hydrate. Emmer (farro) bread is widely available in Switzerland.

The patent rights to one ancient wheat variety, khorasan, are held by a commercial ingredient supplier that only licenses it to be grown under certified-organic conditions. It is excellent for pilafs, cold salads and soups. (See this issues’ abstracts section for more information.)

Durum is the hardest of all wheat varieties. Its high protein and gluten content, as well as its strength, make durum ideal for high-quality pasta. When ground fine for flour, it is called semolina. When durum wheat kernels (“wheat berries”) are lightly polished, they are called grano. 

Rice is the most important staple cereal grain grown for human consumption. Rice is divided into short-, medium- and long-grain varieties, and aromatic and specialty types. Generally, the shorter the rice grain, the moister and stickier it will be when cooked. Only brown rice is a whole-grain product, since the outer bran coat has not been removed. Par-boiled rice has had the hull removed after cooking. Rice is gluten-, cholesterol- and sodium-free and has no trans or saturated fat.

Rye is the second most-cultivated grain for bread-making in the world. Rye flour has a distinctive, aromatic, earthy flavor and a dark color. When used alone, rye flour produces “black” bread, which is consumed extensively in Eastern Europe. “Light-rye” breads, made from a mixture of rye and wheat flours, are preferred in the U.S. Only wheat and rye can be successfully used in the production of leavened breads, because of their essential elasticity and gas-retention properties. Rye can be rolled into flakes; cracked and eaten as a breakfast cereal; or ground and made into crackers.

Bulgur is not a separate variety of wheat, but rather steamed, dried and cracked whole-wheat kernels. It is a common ingredient in Turkish, Middle Eastern, Indian and Mediterranean dishes. Bulgur is chewy and has a light, nutty flavor. The distinctive nutty taste is the result of the inner layers of bran being retained. In America, the best known use of bulgur is probably in tabbouleh salad. Bulgur is high in fiber, protein, iron, magnesium and B vitamins. It is usually sold parboiled, dried and de-branned.

Buckwheat, one of the “pseudo-grains,” is gluten-free and unrelated to wheat. It is commonly utilized in the form of groats (the grain left after the hulls are removed). Cracked groats are used in grits, and roasted groats are sold as kasha, a popular food in Eastern Europe. Soba noodles, a staple of the Japanese diet, are made from buckwheat. Buckwheat is used for breakfast food and porridge and to thicken soups, gravies and dressings.

Barley is even older than wheat, having spread north following the retreat of the glaciers. The flour adds a nutty and appealing flavor to baked goods. Pearl barley and hulled barley are high in fiber and have a chewy texture, mild flavor and readily absorb liquids in soups and sauces. Barley flakes or rolled barley are very similar to rolled oats. Barley may be baked, boiled, steamed or pressure-cooked.

Oats are the third most important grain crop in the U.S. Oats have numerous uses in food; most commonly, they are rolled or crushed for oatmeal or ground into fine oat flour. Oatmeal is chiefly eaten as porridge; it may also be used in a variety of baked goods, such as oat cakes, oatmeal cookies and oat bread. Oats are also an ingredient in many cold cereals, like muesli and granola. Oats have enjoyed an FDA-qualified health claim since 1998, thanks to their beta glucan-containing soluble fiber.

Millet is a term applied to various small, seeded cereal crops and do not form a taxonomic group, but rather a functional one. There are more than 6,000 varieties of millet worldwide. Amaranth, Job’s tears, quinoa and teff can all be considered millets. Millet and millet flour have a naturally sweet taste, comparable to sorghum, but tend to lack the bitter aftertaste caused by the tannins present in sorghum. Using millet flour to make bread results in a lighter consistency and a crunchy crust. When used in salads or cooked dishes, dry-toasting the millet will give the grain a bit of a nutty flavor.

Flax and chia are two oil seeds which have found renewed popularity among modern consumers. Chia is the edible seed of the desert plant Salvia hispanica, a member of the mint family that grows in southern Mexico. In pre-Columbian times, chia seeds formed an important part of the diets of the Aztecs and Mayans. Following a long period of neglect, both chia and flax seeds are being rediscovered for their health benefits. Both are high in easy-to-digest protein and omega-3 fatty acids. They also contain vitamins, minerals and almost 30% fiber.

One of the most significant new products to come along in years is “white-wheat flour,” which comes from a naturally occurring albino variety of wheat. This flour resembles typical refined flour, but has the nutrition and fiber of whole wheat. White wheat does not contain tannins and phenolic acid, compounds found in the outer bran of the red wheat commonly used to make whole-wheat flour. In comparison, white wheat has a mild, sweet flavor more similar to a refined grain than a whole grain.

Today, many ancient grains unfamiliar to most U.S. consumers carry the cache of novelty and up-market


Chia and Flax
Flax and, more recently, chia seed have gained the attention of the food industry. Both possess desirable nutritional profiles. The USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference-Release 22 (2009) reports that 100g flax seed (Linum usitatissimum) contains 18.3g protein and 27.3g dietary fiber. Its fatty acid profile is listed as 7.5g monounsaturates and 28.3g polyunsaturates, of which 22.8g are undifferentiated 18:3 fatty acids. Tufts University ( ) says 1oz of flax seed contains 1.8g omega-3. Flax seed also contains good levels of other key nutrients, including calcium (255mg), magnesium (392mg) and potassium (813mg). Whole and milled flax seed are FDA-notified GRAS (GRN 280). 

The USDA Database also reports 100g of dried chia seeds (Salvia hispanica) contains 15.6g protein, 37.7g dietary fiber, 2.1g monounsaturated fatty acids and 23.3g polyunsaturates, of which 17.6g are 18:3 fatty acids. One chia seed ingredient supplier relays that 22g of chia seed contains 3.8g (or 17.3% ) of omega-3s. The USDA Database also says 100g chia seed contains 631mg of calcium and 160g potassium.
-- Claudia D. O’Donnell, Chief Editor