Grains are enjoying a renaissance arising from a confluence of the natural/organic push; a “back to bread” trend that has restored artisanal and artisanal-style breads to star status; and—from two opposing directions—the gluten-free wave.

Although at first the gluten-free trend impacted sales of some bread and baked products, its rapid rise in prominence generated a backlash that benefited sales in mainstream grain products. It also encouraged the production of baked goods from alternate grains. Thus, the negative reactions toward gluten-containing grains became a promotion for every other grain.

As has been well-reported, only a very few percent of the population has an actual diagnosed need to avoid gluten-containing foods. They have a true sensitivity or even allergy to the two proteins, glutenin and gliadin, that make up gluten. Behind a great deal of the anti-gluten  preference is an urban legend purporting that humans have not consumed grains long enough for their bodies to adapt to them. Fred Brouns, PhD, of Maastricht University in The Netherlands, debunked this at the recent 2015 Whole Grains Summit.

As Brouns pointed out, according to archaeologists, large-scale processing of wild cereal grains took place at a 23,000-year old site in what is now Israel. Even farther back in time, micro-particles in dental enamel proved consumption of wheat, rye and barley in the Neanderthal diet 45,000 years ago.

That the natural hybridization of wheat that occurred about 11,000 years ago has been blamed for modern medical problems with grains also fails the logic test: Virtually nothing on the human dinner plate has remained unchanged in the past 11,000 years.

New Seeds

Today’s processors and bakers have been able to take advantage of the surge in popularity of non-wheat grains and seeds to push to the mainstream a number of previously uncommon ingredients.

Many of the popular grains are not true cereal grains at all, but seeds from various kinds of bushes, vines and even trees. Amaranth is one of the more recently popular examples. A staple of the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs, it is grown in North and South America, as well as parts of Asia. While amaranth is what’s known as a “pseudo-cereal,” because it is a shrub-like plant rather than a grass, it contains many of the same nutrients as “true” cereals. Amaranth also can be popped like popcorn and eaten as a snack. It commonly is used in formulations for cereal/nutrition bars, cookies and desserts.

Amaranth grains are gluten-free, high in fiber, have a good protein profile with a high proportion of unsaturated fatty acids (70% oleic and linoleic acids, 1% α-linolenic acid). They also are unusually rich sources of the essential amino acid lysine that most other grains contain in low amounts.

Studies at USDA’s ARS Functional Food Research Unit in Peoria, Ill., evaluated amaranth flour as a partial replacement for wheat flour in bread. The loaf volume decreased with increasing amounts of amaranth flour, and there were significant differences on the sensory qualities with over 15% amaranth flour.

Amaranth has low viscosity, in contrast to oats, which have high viscosity and water-holding capacity. However, the essential amino acids (“essential” because the body does not make them itself) of oats and amaranth complement each other, so the opposing viscosities and amino acid profiles can be a benefit to formulators. Researchers tested several composites of an amaranth-oat product in sugar cookie formulations and discovered the physical properties, such as color, moisture content, texture and sensory attributes, were closely similar to those of control cookies using wheat flour.

Oat flour and oat bran concentrates also contain beta-glucans. These functional polysaccharides are classified as a soluble fiber and have shown multiple health benefits, including an ability to reduce serum cholesterol and serum glucose levels, as well as provide anti-oxidative effects.

Flax seed is another heritage grain used in both food and traditional medicine for at least 5,000 years. Recognized as a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, flax seed was pushed to the forefront as a healthful ingredient. It also has become prominent in the gluten-free arena. Flax actually has a long history in this country as a source of cloth, oil and animal feed.

But the health halo caused a shift in attention to its benefits as a human food and, today, it is put to multiple uses in everything from milk analogs to prepared smoothie beverages and baked goods.

“Flax seed is one of the highest plant sources of omega-3 fat, with over 50% of the fat portion in flax seed comprised of alpha-linolenic acid—ALA—along with lignans and protein,” notes Sheri Coleman, executive director of the US trade association, Ameriflax. “An ounce—about three tablespoons—of ground flax seed
delivers more than 30% of the recommended daily fiber intake.”

Coleman also points to flax’s high protein content (about 20%) and many essential amino acids. This makes it particularly popular for vegetarian consumers trying to meet their daily protein requirements.

Flax seed’s high lignin content is complemented by significant amounts of vitamins and minerals, also, including folate, vitamin E, vitamin B6, copper, zinc, magnesium and potassium.

The lignans in flax (with sesame being another particularly rich source) are strong antioxidants that also have anti-inflammatory ability. Other studies have shown lignans to be anticarcinogenic, being especially associated with a lower risk of breast cancer.

Ground flax seed must be kept dry, dark and cool, due to its content of unsaturated fatty acids and their ability to turn rancid quickly. But, when kept intact, the seed coat will protect the nutritional value for several years.

Quinoa and chia could easily be labeled the “pseudo-cereals du jour.” It is difficult to find a full-service restaurant without quinoa on the menu, and processors have been taking up the flag by putting both quinoa and chia in a variety of chips, breakfast items, prepared side dishes (such as pilafs) and even beverages.

Quinoa provides eight of the nine essential amino acids and has a protein content of 12-17%. It is sold as the whole grain, but also is made into pastas, puffs, flour and flakes—and it can be popped. The seed is actually sweeter if grown at altitudes above 12,500ft. It is primarily grown in Bolivia and Peru and now also is produced in the Rocky Mountains, with test plots in Washington State.

Chia, meanwhile, is one of the biggest success stories on the ancient grains scene. This other South American seed sometimes is referred to by its Latinate, salvia (Salvia hispanica). Chia has an excellent nutrient profile of 15-25% protein, 30-33% fats (both omega-3s and 6s) and 26-41% carbohydrates. It is high in calcium, potassium, magnesium, fiber and antioxidants and, as with all these non-cereal grains, is gluten-free.

Chia primarily is grown for its oil content and is mostly produced in the Americas, Australia, Caribbean and Southeast Asia. It contains more fat than grains and has been shown to be an effective egg or oil replacer in some bakery formulations.

Research on chia and its health properties suggests that, as a regular part of the diet, it can help improve blood pressure in hypertensive persons. While sometimes promoted for weight loss, published studies have exhibited mixed results. However, as a high-protein, high-omega food, it would compare with similar ingredients that, as in an overall healthy diet, can be an active part of a weight management portfolio.

Chia has excellent gelling properties. This makes it suitable for a number of applications not common to cereals. Chia has been used in smoothies, salad dressings, yogurts, soups and sauces, for example. This is in addition to its application in standard, grain-centered formulations, such as breads, cakes, cookies, fruit juice, and breakfast cereals and bars.

Buckwheat—not a true wheat, but actually a distant cousin of rhubarb—is another false grain with an ancient past. It’s grown in numerous countries, including the US, and produces dark, tetrahedron-shaped seeds whose shell must be removed before processing the inside kernel (called a groat) into flour. Best known for its use in pancakes and soba noodles, it often also is combined with wheat flour for baked goods, as it can sometimes develop bitter flavor notes on its own.

The whole kernel is used in cold and hot cereals, salads and side dishes. The groat can be toasted to make it sweeter. Buckwheat also is very nutritious; it is high in fiber, magnesium and other minerals, as well as protein.

Ancient True Grains

Barley was one of the first plants cultivated by humans. It is a major ingredient in one of the world’s favorite beverages: beer. Barley in the US traditionally has been used to make that important beverage or for animal feed, and—along the fringes—appeared in hot cereals and stews. The highly nutritious grain is finally seeing expanded usage, moving into chips, breads, cookies, pretzels, cold cereals and multigrain items.

Barley has a very high-protein profile and is rich in minerals. Also, in 2006 the FDA approved a health claim for the beta-glucan soluble fiber and heart disease.

Since, as noted previously, most barley has been bred for beer or animal feed, it has a lower beta-glucan content that what is preferable for human food. Research is currently being conducted at Washington State University to increase the beta-glucan content. Scientists there are collaborating with processors and manufacturers to identify barley cultivars for the best milling, flavor, baking and cooking qualities, and enlisted restaurants across the country to test the resultant flours.

The Commonwealth and Industrial Research Organisation of Australia (CSIRO), also has researched barley’s complement of fructans, which are fructose polymers also called fructo-oligosaccharides and known for having a wealth of health benefits. Research supports fructans’ potential for lowering rates of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer.

Based on its research, CSIRO went on to develop a high-fructan barley which contains 11g of fructans per 100g. (Traditional barley contains less than 1%.) The variety of barley has been manufactured into both flour and flakes for use in breads, cereals, breakfast bars, cakes, crackers and cookies. It has been available for consumer products since 2009.

Millet has enjoyed a welcome transition from the bird feeder to the grocery shelves in this county. Some food anthropologists think millet, rather than barley, was the first domesticated grain. Millet has been a major source of protein in Asia and South America, but most Americans have used it in bird and animal feed. It is now becoming a niche grain. Millet comes in a variety of colors, most often a pale yellow, but also white, grey and red.

Millet is high in protein and several essential amino acids but it is low in lysine, as are many grains. It’s gluten-free, and the seeds often are used in pilafs, tabbouleh and porridge. The flour is used for baked goods. It can be roasted for an extra “pop” in salads and side dishes, and/or fermented and consumed as a beverage.

Both pan breads and pastas can be made with a combination of wheat and millet. If the percentage of millet is not above 50%, and an emulsifier is used in bread, the loaf volume will decrease only about 15%. Two enzymes, xylanase and transglutaminase, have been shown to improve bread quality. In pasta, an addition of dried egg white will improve the cooking and bite quality with no more than 20% substitution of millet.

Teff is an Ethiopian grain known as the smallest grain in the world. (See “Teff Trends,” page 88.) It has a brown kernel, however it is also available in white. The word teff comes from the Amharic language, meaning “lost,” because if you drop it, it is so small that it is literally lost. It is estimated to have been domesticated about 6,000 years ago in Northeast Africa and is now being grown in the US.

The spongy crepe-like injera bread that is a staple at Ethiopian tables throughout the world is made from teff. Teff has become mainstream enough to be sold at major retail stores. It also makes a great gluten-free cereal and can be used in polenta, porridge, veggie burgers, side dishes and even desserts and beer.

Teff is a good source of fiber and contains unusually high levels of calcium and iron. Its protein quality is very high, as it contains eight of the essential amino acids, including lysine. which is short in some grains.

Teff can be made into traditional pan bread with a variety of added enzymes. When enzymes are added, they produce a more uniform and fine crumb, and can significantly reduce bitter flavor, aftertaste and improve overall acceptability.

Ancient Wheat

Ancient wheat typically refers to either einkorn, emmer, spelt or Khorasan, as well as triticale—the latter being a hybrid of wheat and rye. Each of these grains is a relative of wheat. Wheat accounts for almost 75% of American grain consumption. It has been suggested that some glu-ten-sensitive individuals, especially those who do not have a full-blown al-lergy, are less likely to have reactions to many of these older relatives of wheat (spelt excluded). But evidence is largely anecdotal and more research must be done.

A recently developed class, hard white wheat, has almost single-handedly increased whole grain consumption significantly. It has wide appeal due to its ability to create familiar comfort breads, such as classic white bread, while still delivering most of the benefits of other whole-grain wheat.

Wheat is the only grain with enough gluten to produce a high-quality bread, and it is strong enough to carry other non- (or weak) gluten-containing seeds and grains. The antioxidant properties of wheat are higher than most fruits and vegetables.

According to Nancy Ames, PhD, of Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada, wheat ranges from 2,000-3,500 trolox equivalents (TE) per 100g, whereas fruit averages less than half that, about 1,200 TE.

Einkorn and emmer are thought to be the oldest domesticated wheats, traced back at least 11,000 and 10,000 years ago, respectively. With higher protein than today’s hard wheat, but a lower gluten strength, they provide some challenges in baking bread. However, these challenges can be overcome by skilled bakers.

Spelt is also known by its common name in Italy, farro. It is popular in Germany, as well, where it is called dinkel, meaning “dark.” Although the three are different varieties of wheat, the exact definition of spelt, dinkel and farro are confusing, as records and translations have interchanged the three, as well as misidentifying them as emmer wheat.

Today, spelt is more widely grown and consumed than the two older wheats. The whole kernel can be used as a pilaf or porridge, and the flour is well-suited to artisanal bread, but requiring a much shorter mixing time.

Khorasan wheat was originally grown in the Fertile Crescent and is actually the ancient Egyptian word for wheat. It is now a registered trademark in the US under the brand name Kamut. It is grown primarily in Montana and North Dakota in the US, and in Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada. It is quite high in protein and has the highest complement of the essential amino acids—eight of nine—among all wheat varietals. The flour is similar to durum flour, so the dough breaks down quicker and needs to be tended closely during processing.

European researchers have published two studies of 20 and 22 subjects, respectively, demonstrating that Khorasan wheat increases antioxidant action in the body; reduces risk of cardiovascular disease and inflammation; and significantly decreases symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Triticale (pronounced “trit-i-KAY-lee”) is a comparatively modern wheat type, dating back about 200 years. This rye-and-durum wheat hybrid is nutritionally similar to other wheat types, but the gluten is weaker. The cooked berries are often used as a side dish, and the flour can be used in baked goods.

Going Green…and Purple

While not specifically a separate variety of wheat, freekeh (“frih-KAY”) has seen a huge jump in popularity in just the past few years. It long has been a traditional, seasonal food of Israeli
Arabs, Syrians and Lebanese. The term freekeh refers to how and when the grain is processed.

Wheat for freekeh is harvested while still young and green. It then is slowly roasted over very low heat, then dried and cracked. Because it is roasted and cracked, it takes less time to cook from the whole grain—about 20 minutes vs. an hour or more for traditional wheat berries. Today, freekeh can be found in a number of flavors and is excellent for soups, pilafs, salads and breakfast cereal.

The newest process on the block for grain foods is sprouting grains. They’ve been used in bread, cookies, crackers, chips and just about anywhere a grain can show up. Most grains can be sprouted and still be called a whole grain. The American Association of Cereal Chemists International (AACC I) ruled if the grain contains all of the bran, germ and endosperm; and the sprout length does not exceed the length of the kernel—and if nutrient levels have not diminished—it can be considered a whole grain.

Many marketers, chefs and food scientists believe sprouted grain is sweeter and less bitter than the original grain. There also is evidence that sprouted grains reduce the phytic acid in the bran and, hence, make the iron and zinc more bioavailable. Sprouting can increase loaf volume and decrease proofing time.

On the other hand, sprouting can improve conditions for microbial contaminations, so intense monitoring must take place. Making sprouted grains on a large commercial basis involves numerous added (and time-consuming) processes, but several companies have succeeded in producing flours that recently have been made available wholesale.

Purple corn has been declared a superfood mainly because of its anthocyanin content. Anthocyanins are a class of strong antioxidants found in abundance in purple, red and blue plants; they have been shown to help reduce the risk of cancer, hypertension, inflammation and heart disease. The phytochemicals even have been connected to improved cognitive function in some studies.

To date, most of the attention—and promising research—on anthocyanins has centered around berries, grapes, cherries and other fruits, as well as certain tubers and root vegetables, such as purple potatoes and yams, and purple carrots. But purple corn, typically a dark and vivid violet—“one of the deepest shades of purple found anywhere in the plant kingdom,” according to the American Botanical Council—contains highly concentrated amounts of this beneficial class of phytochemicals.

While its sister, blue corn, has enjoyed increasing popularity in formulations from chips to cereals, commercially available purple corn is fairly new to the scene. In Peru, a popular sweet purple corn drink, is making strong inroads into the South American market. In the US, while the extract is being used in some beverages and frozen confections, the purple cornmeal itself only just has begun to make inroads into chips, snacks and cereals. One example is Axium Foods Inc.’s Mystic harvest purple corn chips.

Sweet and Versatile

Sorghum is another grain enjoying a rebirth in popularity. The grain originated in Africa and remains a staple food in both Africa and India. In spite of being the fifth most produced grain in the world, most Americans are not familiar with it, at least outside of Texas, Louisiana and other Southern states where it is primarily used for syrup (sorghum syrup tastes like a cross between dark maple and molasses) and for animal feed.

However, is becoming increasingly popular in gluten-free baked goods, side dishes, beverages (fermented and non-fermented) and for snacks. It is high in protein, fiber, iron and antioxidants.

Sorghum is easy to source, as it’s grown domestically, and its natural drought tolerance is a perfect fit for addressing concerns of sustainability and water-conservation initiatives. Popped sorghum is in demand from food innovators due to its high yield and light texture, which helps with bag fill or reducing net weight. It’s possible to pop all sorghum. However, as with corn, only specific varieties exhibit the best yield and quality, so is important to purchase identity-preserved varieties.

For snack food applications, sorghum expands and extrudes quite well. The shape is unlimited, and it is a nutritious addition to cereal or snack bar formulations. Sorghum is available pearled and as whole-grain kernels. Also available are whole-grain and pearled flours, popped sorghum, and sorghum flakes and bran. Since it does not contain gluten, some type of binder—commonly xanthan gum—needs to be added to baked goods using sorghum.

For baked product developers using these low-/zero-gluten grains and seeds, substitution levels can be critical. A general rule is 15-25% substitution of ancient grains and seeds for wheat flour in formulation. These levels usually will not lead to major absorption, mixing time or other changes to the original formula, while they can enhance texture, flavor and nutrition of the final product. In many cases, these levels allow the health halo of “whole grains” to be used—which is always good for its marketing cachet.

When using higher rates of these grains and seeds, the formulator should keep in mind the ingredients’ hydration, flavor profiles and gelatinization properties. Today’s ingredient suppliers and millers have excellent resources in place to help developers and manufacturers innovate with whole grains and seeds.

Teff Trends

Three of five main trends revealed in a new report by the market research group Packaged Facts Inc. included seeds and grains, with the African heritage grain teff singled out for special attention. In the survey report titled “Multicultural Wellness Ingredients: Culinary Trend Tracking Series,” research director David Sprinkle noted: “The trend toward multicultural wellness ingredients manages to marry two leading industry developments into one mega-trend that speaks to both American consumers’ escalating demands for healthier eating, and [their] increasing international palates.”

The report went on to describe teff: “Familiar to some Americans through injera, the spongy Ethiopian flat bread, teff is the smallest grain in the world but carries a hefty dose of nutrients. Teff also is high in fiber, low in fat and sodium, and ideal for wheat- and gluten-avoiding consumers. Upscale gluten-free bakeries use teff to create breads and pastries with an artisanal flair, and the diminutive grain has started popping up in grocery aisles in the form of cereal bars and chips, joining the ‘ancient grains’ wave of novel-but-nutritious ingredients.” For more on the study, visit”

Pushing Grain

As the variety of unique and nutritious whole grains and seeds flows through food makers toward supermarket shelves, food marketers are challenged with communicating their benefits of flavor, versatility and health to the consumer.

The good news is that, in the 2015 “Food & Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes toward Food Safety, Nutrition & Health” by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), 56% of Americans polled agreed they are “trying to eat more whole grains,” with about the same—57%—saying they are “trying to eat more fiber.” Whole grains are one of the main sources of fiber in the American diet.

Dietitians, especially those in schools, foodservice and working as in-store resources for supermarket chains, also say they are directly working with consumers to increase both awareness and consumption of whole grains. This includes education efforts for increasing the variety of grains and seeds consumers choose.

Len Marquart, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Minnesota also have been working on ways to increase consumption of whole grains in the foodservice industry, specifically schools and restaurants. Recent research by Marquart’s team involved the current use and consumption of brown and white rice in 30 Chinese restaurants in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. When both brown and white rice were served, more brown rice was consumed than white rice.

Marquart also is part of a group currently investigating whole grain consumption in Mexican restaurants. Data on plate waste of white and whole-grain tortillas are being collected, as well as total consumption. Preliminary results reveal that family-owned restaurants are less likely to serve whole-grain tortillas than chain restaurants.

The purpose of the study is to determine challenges and opportunities for increased consumption of whole-grain tortillas. Marquart sums up the studies by remarking, “If people are offered the option of whole grains, more people will order it. But if it isn’t offered or isn’t mentioned, people won’t proactively ask for whole grains.”

Storage Matters

All grains, pseudocereals and seeds store well in airtight, cool containers. Due to their high levels of unsaturated oils, they also are best kept at temperatures below 50˚F. If frozen and sealed tightly, most flours from whole grains and seeds will keep for up to six months or longer, depending on their oil content. Storing grains and seeds in whole-kernel form will protect the nutrients and baking quality even longer.