While battered and breaded products historically have carried the onus of a bad rap nutritionally, new ingredients and processing strategies are helping to create better choices. This technology is allowing formulators to keep up with the nutrition demands of today’s consumers. Even better, the past year has brought about a number of really remarkable changes for the battering and breading sector.

In spite of being perceived as unhealthful, consumers simply love battered and breaded products.  Traditionally, the perception that nutritionally, they are not always a good choice for health had some strong basis in fact. Manufacturers put the pressure on ingredient makers who, in turn, continue to respond again and again with novel ingredient technologies to stay on trend with today’s consumer’s expectations for nutritious and delicious products.

Recent developments have meant that battered and breaded products get to retain their status as a favorite food for consumers. More so, with new formulation interventions, there even are opportunities for some of the up-and-coming battered and breaded products to be included as part of a healthy diet.

This is an important trend for food makers. The National Restaurant Association’s 2014 Forecast indicates that for six in 10 frequent fast-food diners—one of the representative demographics purchasing the most battered and breaded food products—the availability of healthier menu items rank high as a decision-making factor for choosing fast food. This is supported by the results of a 2013 Mintel study that revealed 23% of adults had ordered more, healthier fast food menu items in 2013 compared to 2012, with younger adults aged 18-34 having the greater tendency to do so.

An NPD Group report released last year indicated that battered and breaded fast-food items were not performing as strongly as in the past, primarily from this increased nutrition focus. Nutrition is a major selling point, and while battered and breaded products will always have a role in culinary traditions, healthier options are in demand. To compound this, a combination of media and municipal governments—not to mention U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama—have all been pushing for mandates by various regulators to increase the healthfulness of restaurant fare.


New Coats

Batters and breadings historically were wheat-based or cornmeal-based. Typically, these would have included a wheat-flour batter slurry, often followed by a cracker crumb, bread crumb or cornmeal breading prior to deep-frying. While these mainstays still are the backbone of most battered and breaded products, more and more ingredient innovation is taking place.

The new grains being used, such as kamut, einkorn and, especially, quinoa, are increasing in popularity most quickly. Millet is one grain option that has yet to push into the category of coatings, but the tiny African staple grain has a highly favorable crunch when baked or fried and adds visual texture, as well.

Multigrain breadings have equally become very popular across the category, where both multigrain bread or cracker crumb are being produced, as well as flaked or rolled grains used in the breading system. Crumbs for breading are not just bread or cracker any more. Tortilla crumbs, panko and more artisanal offerings are available for new applications.

Cereal-based breadings, such as those using corn flakes, also have moved from restaurants and home kitchens to manufacturing, based on their finding favor in the “comfort zone” of consumers.

Flour options also have made a significant difference in modern coatings. Resistant starch from corn can provide both health and texture improvements in such applications. Also, native starches—starches that have not been modified—when added to a batter or a coating can have a positive impact on texture and flavor. Newer processes in manufacturing native starches are allowing them to withstand the higher cooking temperatures typically employed in preparing coated foods.

Pea, peanut and other legume flour batters are transitioning from their respective ethnic markets into the mainstream. Traditional Southwest Asian battered foods, such as pakoras and bhajis, have long incorporated chickpea flour (also called gram flour) into recipes. Extensive work conducted by Pulse Canada has shown that pea starch, flour and fiber have unique opportunities in battered products and deliver equally strong on the gluten-free trend.


Healthier Inclusions

Inclusions in batters, such as coconut, sesame seed, vegetable pieces or herbs, increase the variety of offerings for battered or breaded products. The big changes in healthier breading and batter are multifold, but trending up is the incorporation of ingredients such as nuts, seeds and whole ancient grains. Almonds are a popular coating inclusion, as are pecans and hazelnuts, with pistachios making strong inroads into the breaded foods segment as they become more popular overall.

Technically, however, inclusions can be challenging, as the browning and frying characteristics of the inclusion often does not match the characteristics of the batter itself, causing the system to be unbalanced in presentation.

Dried vegetables and herbs also are used with frequency to enhance flavors of coatings. However, they have a tendency to overbrown from excess sugars caramelizing or forming Maillard product. Meanwhile, herbs tend to darken and appear gray or black within the batter, from instability of the chlorophyll during high temperature, along with sugar browning.

Moisture balancing in the inclusions aids in reduction of overbrowning and burning of inclusions, and low sugar concentration within inclusions will reduce sugar-based caramelization or Maillard product formation. These approaches also help with increasing visual appeal and flavor retention. Temperature control during frying plays an equally important part in the visual appeal of inclusions, and effective selection of frying and bake-off temperatures will ensure best quality in the final product.

Even when used in combination with flours, high-protein, mineral-rich components add to the flavor, texture and nutritional profile of the finished products. Most (although not all) also have the added benefit of striking that other important trend chord—that of being gluten-free.


Gluten be Gone

The gluten-free push has moved beyond being a fad and is now mainstream reality. While only about 1-3% of the North American population has celiac disease, gluten-free diets have become a significant trend for health-conscious consumers. (See “Next-gen Gluten-Free,” May 2014 magazine) The numbers of consumers buying gluten-free products as a sort of “insurance” are estimated at more than 10 times the number with a medical need to so restrict their diet.

Mainstream offerings of breaded chicken and fish products from companies such as Perdue Foods Inc., Tyson Foods Inc. and High Liner Foods Inc. are now available in gluten-free formulations and meet the quality expectations of consumers used to traditional wheat flour-based battered or breaded products. Rice flour and cornmeal have featured heavily in most current formulations. However, watch for quinoa, pea or legume flour, as well as ground nuts and nut flours to continue to emerge as unique and flavorful alternative, gluten-free options.

Many batter and breading companies have incorporated prefabricated gluten-free pre-dusts, batters and breadings into their product portfolio, making adoption of gluten-free ingredient technology easy at both the manufacturing and food service levels.

When preparing a gluten-free product, consideration must be made to heighten maintenance of GMPs. Fully validated sanitation must be performed between the manufacture of gluten-containing products and gluten-free products, or else operationally segregated by manufacturing the gluten-free first, followed by the gluten-containing products.

With new regulations in place demanding gluten-free products adhere to a maximum of 20ppm gluten (with some demands even lower) there is very little room for error. And, for that 1-3% medically diagnosed with celiac disease, any such error could result in serious consequences for both the consumer and the manufacturer.

Fryer oil also is an issue when producing gluten-free products. It cannot be guaranteed that gluten-free products fried in the same oil as gluten-containing products will remain gluten-free. The presence of fine particulate from previous frying runs is a contamination risk that can compromise the gluten-free claim. But, oil used in battered and breaded foods is a significant factor in its own right.


Oil Business

In November of last year, a U.S. Federal Register Notice was filed by the FDA declaring that partially hydrogenated fats would no longer have GRAS status because of evidence indicating that dietary trans fats could contribute significantly to cardiovascular disease. Almost all battered and breaded products are deep-fried, and a very large portion of those products would have been fried in partially hydrogenated oils.

With partially hydrogenated oils losing GRAS status, it implies that every product containing this ingredient would have to go for pre-market review to ensure that the product would not cause harm to the consumer, which would be an impossibly expensive task for most manufacturers. Most food manufacturers are taking a pre-emptive approach and are working on reformulating to avoid potential regulatory challenges to their existing product ranges.

Frying operations for batter and breading lines will require evaluation to ensure that the frying oils comply with new regulations, while meeting product quality standards. For this reason, there has been a recent jump in the technology around specially engineered fats and oils.

There are a number of reasons why a deep-frying operation, as seen in most battering and breading operations, would choose a partially hydrogenated fat for frying. Hydrogenation reduces the quantity of polyunsaturated fats within the system. These polyunsaturates, while perhaps important nutritionally, have a very negative impact on the shelflife and frying stability of the oil. Polyunsaturated fats have an increased rate of oxidation, as compared to monounsaturated and saturated oils.

By hydrogenating these polyunsaturated oils into more stable saturated oils, the shelflife is increased for both the frying oil and the finished products produced in it. The stability of the frying oil is improved, and the rate of peroxide formation is reduced. As a side benefit, there also is less formation of polymerized oils during the frying process, something which facilitates cleaning and sanitation on processing equipment.

Partially hydrogenated oils equally convert liquid oils into solid fats which, in certain applications, lends to the crisp and crunch delivery without a greasy or oily mouthfeel or oil-staining of packaging materials. Many frying operations are still seeking a solid or partially solid fat stock for best application, while others are embracing liquid oils with improved functionality.

Fractionated or interesterified oils are examples of oils providing the functionality of a solid or partially solid fat stock to processors interested in maintaining solid fat attributes in their frying operation. Fractionated oils are a unique innovation, where liquid oil is slowly run through a temperature gradient, and the solid and liquid fraction are separated, typically by filtration or centrifugation. In this way, the polyunsaturated fats—which have a much higher melting temperature than the monounsaturated and saturated fats—can be separated from the stable oils, and oils and fats with very specific melting profiles can be blended.

Interesterification acts to enzymatically “shuffle” triglycerides on the glycerol backbone. This allows for liquid oils to be truly blended with solid fat stocks, such as palm oil or trans-free, fully hydrogenated oil acid. The result is a smoother melting profile that can better mirror the attributes of partially hydrogenated fats.


New Seed Stock

Low-linolenic oilseeds have been bred using both traditional crop breeding and biotechnology. Linolenic acid is an 18:3 omega-3 fatty acid, which, while very nutritious as an essential fatty acid, is extremely unstable in deep-frying applications. The multiple unsaturated bonds are extremely prone to oxidation, especially in high-heat applications. (In fact, one historical reason for partial hydrogenation of oils was to eliminate linolenic acid, especially in soybean oil.)

Traditional breeding, as well as biotechnology, have allowed oil manufacturers to reduce linolenic acid and eliminate the stability issues with the linolenic rich native soybean oils. High-oleic soybean oils have equally been developed to compete with naturally high-oleic canola oil. Both high-oleic and low-linolenic oils have extended shelflife as compared to the native oil. High-oleic oils tend to also have lower saturated fat contents, but at a slightly higher price point than low-linolenic oils.

Olive oil, a high-oleic monounsaturated oil, is another fat seeing increased use for frying breaded and battered foods. This, in spite of its relatively low smoke point of 380°F. Not only does olive oil have one of the strongest reputations for health among oils, it also has other benefits for frying.

According to Boston-based Oldways Preservation Trust, frying foods in olive oil leaves them less greasy and crunchier than frying in them in other fats. Also, foods fried in olive oil have less cholesterol compared to foods fried in animal fats and lower saturated fat than foods fried in most other oils.


Pre-dust and Batter Barriers

In the fall of last year, Burger King Corp. brought forward a new French fry across North America. The fry incorporates a proprietary, clear-battering formulation specifically designed for fat reduction. “Satisfries,” as they are known in the U.S. (they’re called “Gratifries” in Canada) have approximately 25% reduced-calorie content, as compared to the traditional French fry offerings from the same outlet. Moreover, a small serving size contains 3g fat less per serving for a comparable weight.

Clear-coat batters and predusts have been developed by a number of manufacturers and are seeing broad commercial success. Typically, the formulation either focuses on a protein-based film or a dextrin-based film. These act as barriers reducing the ingress of fat into the batter matrix.

While clear-coat pre-dusts or batters can be used as a fat-reducing strategy alone, they can equally be incorporated into a full-battered product as a first layer. One additional benefit is that these film-forming batters also can slow the transit of moisture out from the matrix into the fried batter, thereby giving a longer hold time for the product, without the batter or breading getting soggy from outward moisture migration.

Battered and breaded foods are here to stay. Consumers love this category, and since these same consumers express interest in more nutritious versions of these foods, manufacturers have ample opportunities to provide nutritionally improved, innovative offerings to all consumers. 

Acrylamide Control

A recently burgeoning health-related issue with battered and breaded products is the formation of acrylamide. During the frying process, Maillard reaction products are part of the browning mechanism, but the presence of excess asparagine, in combination with reducing sugars such as glucose or fructose, along with high temperatures can enhance the formation of acrylamide.

Canada is currently in a regulatory evaluation phase to identify strategies for reducing and eliminating acrylamide formation, while the U.S. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition published a draft guidance document for manufacturers in November 2013. Current best practices for reduction of acrylamide include selection of wheat or other grains that are low in asparagine. Wheat is relatively high in asparagine, while corn and rice are lower—implying that the latter grains would be less prone to acrylamide formation.

Whole grains tend to have higher asparagine content, while high-extraction flours tend to be lower. However, high-extraction flours also have a lower net nutritional value. Inclusion of reducing sugars in batter or breading formulation, including glucose and fructose (but not sucrose) act as a precursor for acrylamide formation.

Asparaginase enzyme acts to convert asparagine to aspartic acid and is approved for use in the U.S. and Canada. The challenge for using asparaginase is that it must be used in a wet matrix, so it can be incorporated into a wet batter system, but it would not work in a dry-crumb breading. Rather, the asparaginase would have to be incorporated into the breading during the bread formulation, prior to baking and grinding.

Thermal input and color formation also are linked to acrylamide formation. In general, higher temperatures are implicated in higher acrylamide formation, and the related increased browning equally linked to increased acrylamide. Control of color formation is critical in acrylamide formation. Color is partly defined by the formulation and process control as described, and partly through operational control.

Fryer oil peroxide formation needs to be properly monitored, and oil exchanged at the end of its lifespan, as old oxidized oil can impart an overly dark color while enhancing acrylamide formation. The presence of fine particulates within the fryer oil can have equal negative impact on the concentration of acrylamide in a final product, so an effective filtration system is critical for acrylamide management.