Except for rice, corn, and oats, the vast majority of the grains consumed today in the US are rarely enjoyed in their whole or intact form. In fact, most of the grain processed in the US ends up as flour, oil, or some other secondary product. Wheat flours are used in breads and pastries, ground corn is used in snack chips, and barley is used mainly as the source of fermentable carbohydrates for production of beer or for animal feed.

However, the steadily growing demand for whole grains has continued unabated due to the well-established role of whole grains in improving diet and health. Grains that contain the bran and germ still attached to the endosperm are higher in protein, omega fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and the other beneficial components that give them such a desirable nutrition profile. And for culinary development experts, they also retain a lot more of their natural nutty, earthy flavor.

More recently, the trend toward greater use and consumption of so-called “ancient grains” has significantly boosted awareness of, interest in, and demand for an expanding portfolio of new and different grains and grain-derived food products.

Ingredient processors and millers have hastened to meet the demands for these less-common ingredients and have been well positioned to provide the know-how to use them.

Seeds, on the other hand, enjoy more diverse use in products. They often appear in their whole form as toppings or inclusions. Yet, over the past decade or so, more seeds have been tapped as sources for flours and starches — especially for use in gluten-free formulations — while grains in their intact form have received closer culinary attention.

Seeds provide a potent and even a “characterizing” source of flavor in a varied assortment of foods from all over the world, including the flavor of fennel seeds in Italian sausage, toasted sesame seeds (or oil derived from them) in Asian foods, caraway seeds in rye bread, and even the flavor of anise seeds in Sambuca and other licorice-flavored liqueurs.

An example of the burgeoning attraction of seeds as flavor mechanisms is exemplified by the recent surge in use and popularity of the sesame and poppy seed-based “everything” seasoning that originated on bagels but expanded to crackers, chips, spreads, and dozens of other foods.

That said, seeds are also enjoying greater attention from product developers, beyond their traditional uses as toppings, flavorings, or inclusions. Flax, chia, and other high-omega seeds in particular are becoming a significant presence in sports and nutrition bars, breads, cereals, and even beverages due to their recognized nutritional and health benefits.

Seeds wear a solid “better for you” halo. They provide a source of unsaturated fat calories, along with protein, fiber, and an assortment of vitamins and minerals. And, as alternatives for consumers with a peanut or tree nut allergy, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and hemp and sesame seed nut butter analogs have hit the market.

They have been especially favored in recent years, as they offer a nut-free alternative to nut butters for individuals with a peanut or tree nut allergy.


Flavor Carriers

A recent innovation in grains and seeds is promising to add a new function to the category. One ingredient company has patented technology that uses sesame seeds as a flavor carrier, thereby making them an alternative to more traditional flavor carriers such as maltodextrin, gums, or modified starches. In addition to their functional ability to deliver any type of sweet or savory flavor, being whole sesame seeds, they have a natural appearance that consumers accept.

They can be used in or on virtually any food item that one would normally associate with sesame seeds — breads, crackers, energy bars, cereals, and breadings and coatings — as well as some new applications not typically making use of sesame seeds. Examples are mix-ins for yogurts, ice cream toppings, teas, and others. The infused sesame seeds are bake- and fry-stable and boast a one-year shelf life. Although for now the company has applied the technology only to sesame seeds, several others are in the pipeline and could launch soon.

The other new flavor-encapsulated seed product, launched last summer, is a ready-to-eat whole-grain delivery system using sorghum seeds. They can be used as carriers of sweet or savory flavors and are bake- and fry-stable. In this case, the sorghum grains are first cracked, and then flavors are infused into the grain. Current flavors include chili-lime, habanero, jalapeño, nacho cheese, and ghost chili pepper.


Old School

The roles that grains and seeds play have historically depended on geography and availability. Although all of the major grains have been cultivated for thousands of years — some for as long as 10,000 years — and have been the primary source of nutrition for the majority of people on the planet since then, few have made a significant mark as culinary stars in their own right. But recent years have opened up opportunities for some grains to take center stage, especially those referred to as “ancient grains.”

There is no official definition for the popular term “ancient grains,” although it has become a general term used to describe grains and pseudo-grains (such as the seeds quinoa, teff, amaranth, and millet) that have been unchanged by selective breeding. Spelt, farro, kamut, buckwheat, chia, blue corn, black (purple) barley, red rice, and the aforementioned quinoa all are examples. Other terms used to describe these are “heirloom” and “heritage” grains.

All of these grains and pseudo-grains have been extensively cultivated for thousands of years in Africa, South America, and the Middle East. Unlike modern strains of grain such as wheat and corn that have been modified either by cross-breeding or genetic manipulation, these are virtually identical to their ancient predecessors.

Most of these uncommon ingredients trickled into American awareness via restaurant chefs and artisanal bakers yet were slow to gain traction in food product development due to limited supply, higher cost, and the extra labor involved in their use. That changed when American consumers began to demand gluten-free and non-GMO products in massive numbers. Most of today’s culinologists and product makers are familiar with and taking advantage of the flavor, marketing, and nutritional benefits of heritage grains and seeds.


Grain Train

The majority of early product launches using whole grains revolved around the use of whole-grain wheat flours (both standard red whole wheat and white whole wheat). Products ran the gamut from breads, pastas, tortillas, cookies, and crackers to hot cereals, baking mixes, and pastries.

As the nutritional establishment (including the government’s latest updating of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020) has acknowledged the health benefits of increasing dietary intake of whole grains, there has been a marked increase in the incorporation of whole grains into formulations.

Overlapping the publication of the latest Dietary Guidelines a data brief was released in July 2019 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. The brief covered whole grain consumption stats among adults in the US from 2013-2016. According to the report, adults consumed less than 16% of their total grain intake as whole grains, on average.

This is far less than the 50% recommended by the Dietary Guidelines. Those statistics are three years old, however. A new survey conducted last year by the Oldways Whole Grains Council found that the number of consumers who exceed the 50% whole grain intake goal has increased to 64%.

Consumers are exposed to a vast field of grain and seed choices, and with the new global and ethnic influences on food preferences providing ample stimulus, retailers like Bob’s Red Mill are able to offer more than 100 varieties of whole grain and seed products.

Cracker, cereal, pasta, and chip makers are not missing out either, with companies such as Nature’s Path Foods USA, Inc., offering products like its “Heritage Flakes” RTE cereal of kamut, spelt, millet, barley, and quinoa, and “Mesa Sunrise,” with amaranth, quinoa, flax, and oats. The company also employs whole ancient grains in several of its hot cereal mixes, waffles, and other products.

Breakfast and energy bars are another popular vehicle for bringing less-familiar grains and seeds into consumers’ dietary repertoire. Olyra Greek Nutrition Products SA launched a well-received line of “ancient Greek grains” breakfast bars that use whole grain spelt, oat, and barley flour with sesame tahini and flavoring seeds such as anise.


New Grains

“A brand-new grain, called tritordeum (xTritordeum ascherson-et-graebner), has recently launched in European markets,” reports Caroline Sluyter, program director for the Oldways Whole Grains Council. The grain is a hybrid created in Spain by researchers who bred durum wheat with a wild barley variety native to South America. The goal was to combine the digestibility of barley with the preferred taste of wheat.

The new hybrid was developed using traditional crossbreeding methods as opposed to genetic manipulation. Currently, the grain is only being grown in Spain, Italy, and the South of France, and sold in Europe and Australia. Although the grain is not yet available in the US, the breeders are seeking American distributors.

Tritordeum is environmentally friendly and sustainable. In addition to high drought and disease resistance, it needs less fertilizer or pesticides than other wheat varieties. The grain recently won first prize in the sustainable ingredient category at the Sustainable Foods Summit held in Amsterdam in 2018.

Nutritionally, tritordeum contains 30% more fiber than common wheat, and 10 times more lutein – a naturally occurring carotenoid antioxidant known for its importance to eye health. Lutein is also a pigment that is responsible for the grain’s yellow color.

Another nutrient that is present at higher levels in tritordeum than in wheat is oleic acid, a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid believed to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Also, although the grain is not gluten-free, it has less gliadin than regular wheat and thus is easier to digest for some persons with gluten sensitivity (but not for people with celiac disease).

Another rapidly emerging grain, fonio, isn’t really new. In fact, it is truly an ancient grain, having been cultivated for at least 5,000 years in Western Africa. Fonio is tiny — under 1mm — and drought resistant. It is easy to grow, matures quickly, and is a critically important subsistence food for millions of African farmers and their families.

However, processing the grain is difficult. The grain resembles sand in size, and de-husking must be done by hand, using a mortar and pestle, a task that takes three people (traditionally women) two hours per kilogram. There is no affordable automated method available. Moreover, up to 60% of the yield is lost in the process.

As with many ancient and emerging grains and seeds, the explosion of interest in global and ethnic ingredients has taken something once considered a poor person’s subsistence food and made it highly trendy. Also typical of such ingredients, the nutritional value is higher than many of the ingredients that a grain like fonio is intended to substitute for.

For example, compared with brown rice, fonio is higher in protein, fiber, iron, thiamin, and riboflavin. It also is high in the essential amino acid methionine. Fonio is gluten-free, has a low glycemic index, and cooks rapidly. It also expands significantly when cooked; whereas rice has a cooked-to-raw ratio of 3:1, fonio’s is 6:1. Fonio resembles a smaller version of couscous and can be used in a hot breakfast cereal formulation, as a side dish, or even in a center-of-the-plate format such as pilaf.

A third new grain is Kernza, a domesticated perennial grain originating from a wild wheat. It is in the early stages of commercialization by The Land Institute, a non-profit agricultural research organization. The group focuses on developing perennial grains, pulses, and oilseeds that do not require replanting every year (unlike most of the world’s food crops). Switching from annuals to perennials would eliminate the need for annual plowing, which causes soil erosion, and repeated application of herbicides.

Kernza also has a root structure that makes it a highly ecological and sustainable crop. Whereas annual wheat roots grow only a foot into the soil and die after one year, Kernza roots can grow to 10 feet or longer, needing much less irrigation, and protect against soil erosion and loss by holding onto the soil long after annual roots have died and withered away.

Kernza is currently is being used in restaurants and bakeries for pizza dough, noodles, sprouted flatbread crackers, and in flour blends for pastries. Some larger CPG companies have taken notice, with General Mills, Inc.’s Cascadian Farms planning to include Kernza in one of its cereals later this year.


Waste Not

About 85% of brewery waste is the spent malted barley after it has been used to make wort, the liquid fermented to produce beer. For every gallon of beer produced, 10 pounds of spent grain are left over. Overall, the brewing industry in the US produces some 84 billion pounds of spent grain every year. Although technically a waste product, spent grain has plenty of nutritional value, including protein, fiber, and B vitamins.

Until recently, spent grain was routinely used as animal feed or sent to landfills. But creative entrepreneur Dan Kurzrock, co-founder and chief grain officer of ReGrained, LLC, recently found a way to tap into that potential. Overcoming the challenge of spent grain’s tendency to rapidly spoil even under refrigeration, his company quickly dries the grain and then mills it into flour.

ReGrained repurposes (“upcycles”) spent grains produced by the brewing industry into a nutrient-dense flour called “Supergrain+” that the company then turns into products such as snack bars. According to Kurzrock, a pound of Supergrain+ flour “has about as much protein as 14 eggs and as much dietary fiber as 49 servings of oatmeal.” ReGrained’s first commercial product was a granola bar, but the company has been working with a variety of food industry partners to develop multiple lines of sweet and savory applications, including breads, bagels, pizza crusts, pastas, snack chips and crackers, granola bars, coatings, and even sauces.


Sprouted and Soaked

One of the biggest trends in grains currently is that of sprouted grains. Every grain contains all of the ingredients necessary to grow a new plant: The bran provides a physical barrier to protect the seed until it begins its growth cycle, and the germ becomes the embryo that feeds on the starchy endosperm. But until temperature and moisture conditions are optimal to initiate germination, the grain remains dormant.

Once sprouting starts, enzymes begin to break down the long-term-storage starch of the endosperm into simpler molecules (sugars), and the proteins are broken down to amino acids, both of which are more easily digested by the growing plant embryo.

The sprouting process has been shown to increase the amount and bioavailability of many of the grains’ key nutrients, including folate and other B vitamins, vitamin C, fiber, and essential amino acids often unavailable in grains, such as lysine. Studies of the potential health benefits of consuming sprouted grains are ongoing, and show promise.

In addition to the potential for increased digestibility and nutrient availability, sprouted grains have a unique flavor profile compared with unsprouted grains. The breakdown of large starch molecules into simpler sugars increases sweetness, which can be imparted into the products made with them. Likewise, the peptides and amino acids that result from the breakdown of proteins can act as flavor precursors of a range of volatile aromatics.

Developers making sprouted grain products generally apply two different approaches. Some opt to sprout the grain mix and then dry it. The dried sprouted grain can then be milled into flour for use in an assortment of baked goods, RTE breakfast cereals, snack chips, pastas, and boxed sprouted “risotto” or “pilaf” mixes. Or, the grains can be kept whole, to be cooked and used as a side dish.

Alternately, other product makers mash the wet, sprouted grains into a thick purée from which they make breads, tortillas, muffins, and other items. These products often (but not always) are gluten-free and sold in frozen formats for ready baking.

While whole seeds are often used as a flavorful and attractive topping, certified artisanal baker and chef Michael Kalanty also uses an assortment of seeds in yeasted doughs and quick bread batters. They provide texture, stabilization, and improved shelf life. According to Kalanty, the lignans and gums present in the seeds help hold on to moisture in the breads, slowing evaporation and the onset of staling.

Kalanty toasts and grinds his seeds prior to use, but he also soaks flax seeds overnight to activate starch-digesting enzymes. Those enzymes transform the starches into sugars to further improve product flavor and make nutrients in the seeds more accessible for digestion. In bread-baking, this is called the “soaker” stage; it is commonly used in seeded whole-grain, multi-grain, and sourdough breads.


The Color Purple

In recent years, there has been growing interest in the revival, development, and marketing of an assortment of colored grains that are more familiar to consumers in brown or beige forms. Those include blue, purple, and black barley; red, purple, and black rice; blue, purple, and red corn;  purple, gold, red, white, and even young green wheat (freekeh); and red, black, and white quinoa. These are natural colors, in some cases brought back from ancient strains. But it’s not just the colors that are attractive in these grains — there are nutritional benefits to them as well.

Colored grains contain higher levels of antioxidants than non-colored varieties. The black and purple grains in particular contain the highest levels of anthocyanins, a class of powerful antioxidant flavonoids that have demonstrated anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and cardiovascular health properties.

Millers and ingredient brokers are continually exploring the globe to bring us consumers "new" ancient grains.

Until about 10 years ago, quinoa was unfamiliar outside of its native South America, where it was thought of as animal feed or “food for the poor.” Then, half a dozen years ago the UN declared 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa” and sponsored celebrations around the world to extol its virtues. This caught the attention of US chefs and consumers looking for the next ‘superfood’, and quinoa fit the bill perfectly.

Considered a whole grain (even though it’s a seed) quinoa does possess a unique nutritional profile. It is one of only a few plant foods considered to provide a complete protein, as it contains all nine essential amino acids. It’s exceptionally high in the amino acid lysine, and rich in methionine and histidine. Quinoa is high in plant omega fatty acids and insoluble fiber, and its protein-to-carbohydrate ratio is higher than that of most other grains. It also is a particularly good source of magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, iron, folate, copper, zinc, potassium, and B vitamins.

When it was introduced to the US market, there were difficulties with quinoa, as it also is high in phytochemicals called saponins, which turn rancid quickly and impart a slightly soapy flavor. But improved storage and preparation techniques solved that challenge and sales took off, rising 600% between 2000 and 2014. Quinoa sales skyrocketed even as the price increased. In 2017, the US imported 74 million pounds of the seed, primarily from Peru and Bolivia and nearly double the amount imported in 2016. And, although quinoa was recently referred to as a fad that peaked, its sales are still rising, suggesting that the grain has mainstreamed and is here to stay.

The same is true of the myriad other grains and seeds being put to culinary use in the US. And the doors are wide open for the hundreds of others in use around the globe that have yet to take root in the US.

Originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Prepared Foods as Amber Waves.