Sponsored By

A Unique Grain of an IdeaA Unique Grain of an Idea

December 23, 2011

10 Min Read
A Unique Grain of an Idea

By Michael Holleman, Contributing Editor

Imagine a salt flat at 13,000 ft., carved amid a Bolivian mountain range from an ancient sea. On this vast plateau, only quinoa can grow in the rich mineral soil and dry, cold air, where its thrived since the age of the Incas. During the fallow season, llamas and alpacas naturally aerate the soil by trampling the ground in search of wild grasses, and their dung provides rich fertilizer for the quinoa seeds. Once shrubs emerge, farmers tend to each by hand, shielding them from frost and cold winds with small stones and the same straw used to form roofs of dwellings.

Its as much the compelling back stories of lesser-known grains as their flavor and nutrition that interest consumers and help propel demand for such in food products and on menus. Ancient grains (most of which carry the built-in marketing benefits that heirloom" brings to the table) are suddenly new again, offering novelty and contributing to menu and product interest.

The good news for chefs and manufacturers is that the spectrum of grains readily available in the marketplace has grown exponentially in the last several years. Whats more, grains today represent nearly every color in the rainbow, from charcoal wheat to red quinoa, from black barley to purple Thai rice, aiding plate presentation and enhancing products appeal.

No longer must every risotto begin with an Italian white rice. Cooked oatmeal need not be the sole hot-cereal option at breakfast. How does seafood paella, the famed saffron-scented rice dish from Spain, become more interesting and nutritious? When prepared with black barley.

Ancient, unique and whole

Make no mistake: The grains making waves with consumers right now are whole grains. And consumers say they want more of themon the menu, on serving lines, in prepared-food departments of supermarkets and on retail shelves.

Whole grains and foods made from them contain all the essential parts and naturally occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed, including the bran, germ and endosperm. Even if the grain has been processed (e.g., cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded and/or cooked), the food product should deliver approximately the same rich balance of nutrients that are found in the original grain seed. The USDA defines a food as whole grain" when at least 51% of the grain is whole grain and a serving of that food has at least 8 grams of whole grain.

The best examples of less-mainstream, but increasingly recognizable, whole-grain foods and flours are amaranth; black barley; buckwheat; white, black and red quinoas; colored rices other than brown, including several black and red varieties now grown in the United States; sorghum (also called milo); teff; triticale; and certain varieties of wheat, including spelt, einkorn, emmer, farro, grano, kamut, charcoal wheat and forms, such as bulgur, cracked wheat and wheat berries. Wild rice, though well known among consumers, is enjoying a resurgence in interest among foodservice operators and manufacturers thanks to new categorizing that distinguishes premium Grades A+ and A from Grades A/B, C and D/Cracked.

According to the Whole Grains Council, Boston, an initiative of Oldways and the originator of the Whole Grain Stamp featured on more than 5,000 products worldwide, cereal grasses from the Poaceae (or Gramineae) family, such as canary seed, Jobs tears, Montina, Timothy, fonio, etc., are also whole grains when consumed with all of their bran, germ and endosperm. Amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat are not in the Poaceae botanical family, but these pseudo-grains" are normally included with true cereal grains because their nutritional profiles, preparation and uses are so similar.

Good health: a driver

In April 2010, the American Society for Nutrition, Bethesda, MD, brought together researchers to review the evidence regarding the health benefits associated with whole grains. Current scientific evidence indicates that whole grains play an important role in lowering the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, and also contribute to weight and cholesterol management, and digestive health. The findings were published as a supplement to The Journal of Nutrition in May 2011 (141(5):1,011S-1,022S).

Health experts advise everyonemen and women, young and oldthat grains are a healthy necessity in every diet, and its important to eat at least half our grains as whole grains." Consumers are increasingly aware that fruits and vegetables contain disease-fighting phytochemicals and antioxidants, but many still do not realize whole grains are often an even better source of these key nutrients. Moreover, whole grains have some valuable antioxidants not found in fruits and vegetables, and many also contain B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, iron and fiber.

Some less-mainstream grains are excellent sources of plant protein. With the growing number of flexitarians" who opt for meatless meals at least part of the time, such grains can be a boon to delivering interesting, flavorful vegetarian and vegan items. Amaranth, for example, is high in protein, as is quinoa, which contains the eight amino acids essential for optimal health.

The millions of people who cant eat gluten, a protein in wheat and related grains such as barley, rye, spelt, kamut and triticale, must choose their grains carefully. This group includes the nearly 3 million Americans with celiac diseasean autoimmune form of gluten intolerancewho must eat a gluten-free diet for life. Other people may not have celiac disease, but may be allergic to wheat nonetheless, and must avoid all forms of wheat.

Gluten-intolerant people can eat gluten-free whole grains, including amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, Montina (Indian rice grass), quinoa, rice, sorghum, teff and wild rice. Oats are inherently gluten-free, but are frequently intermixed with small amounts of wheat during growing or processing. A handful of U.S. companies, however, offer pure, uncontaminated oats.

Using less-mainstream grains

Try popping a small amount of amaranth in a hot dry pan and watch itand hear itquickly grow to several times its size. Its as much fun to make as it is to eat. Chefs and product developers seeking ways to work with this ancient whole grain can be introduced to amaranths satisfying mouthfeel and ability to accept virtually any flavor by making dulce de alegria, the simple, traditional Mexican candy featuring dried fruits and seeds folded into popped amaranth and sweetened with agave nectar and honey.

If a seventh taste sense existed (the fifth being the savory fullness of umami and the sixth being kokumi, or the sensation of fatty mouthfeel), it would probably best be described as earthy" and nutty." Thats how chefs characterize the flavors of many ancient whole grainslike black barley, quinoa, charcoal wheat, and several heirloom rice strains like red jasmine, wild rice , etc.currently grabbing consumers attention.

But pinning down a single flavor profile among whole grains is impossible because grains are not created equal. Amaranth s mild nuttiness, for example, makes it an ideal, healthy canvas that readily adopts the flavors of other ingredients. Among wheats, kamut  is sweeter than its cousins, with considerably larger kernels, so it contributes its own flavor and texture to a dish or product. Freekehs flavor is more robust than most other grains, with an umami characteristic not commonly found in grains.

Indeed, freekeh , one of the newest grains to enter the U.S. marketplace, isnt a grain at all, but rather embodies a process that greatly impacts the flavor experience. The wheat is harvested while still young, green and soft, then parched, roasted and dried. The process (considered heirloom because it relies only on fire and air and has been handed down from hundreds of generations) captures the grains at their peak of flavor and nutrition. Freekeh has a toothy" texture, with some grains cracked, others whole, for a pleasing, almost meaty, mouthfeel. The flavor is earthy, with slight mineral undertones, and will vary from batch to batch, not unlike vintages of wine.

Several less-mainstream grains can serve as canvasses for a range of culinary directions. The same cooked white quinoa, for example, can yield various ethnic-inspired menu concepts via some simple ingredient additions: Asian, with sesame-soy dressing, lime juice and zest, scallion, and ginger; Indian, with sesame dressing, garam masala, golden raisins and scallion; and Peruvian, with chile vinaigrette, lime juice and zest, cilantro, and jalapeño.

Although pure, single grains grab the lions share of attention among consumers, for manufacturers and foodservice operations, whole-grain blends offer the power to wow. For foodservice operations wishing to distinguish their menu offerings, grain blends offer a perfect opportunity to capitalize on the familiarity of one grain to titillate the customer with another. Whereas someone might not be willing to bet their taste buds (and wallet) on sprouted brown rice, grano, an exotic red rice or farro when encountering it for the first time, blending any one or more of these with popular and eminently comfortable long-grain white or brown rice, or wild rice, can be the ticket to culinary adventure.

Given that different ingredients cook at varying rates, the challenge to manufacturers in creating intriguing multi-ingredient grain blends is conforming cook times of all ingredients so the convenience-added product yields ultimate flavor and proper doneness. Pearling (as with barley),  freeze-drying, individually quick-freezing and retorting are some processes that can accomplish this goal. In the realm of lesser-known grains, emerging opportunities for manufacturers include puffing them for use in cold breakfast cereals, snack foods, candies and confections. Quick-freezing individual grains also can increase the practical usability of many less-common grains in frozen entrées and side dishes, as well as facilitate HACCP in large-volume cooking within prepared-foods departments of grocery stores.

In his 2002 book, "trendSpotting," author Richard Laermer distinguished a trend from a fad in that a trend is something just emerging, whereas a fad is a flash in the pan. A trend is enjoyed by a few now, experienced by many tomorrow and virtually touching everyone by next week, he wrote. Given that definition, not only is it safe to say that less-mainstream whole grains are a trend, but one that continues to gain momentum and attract devotees.

Michael Holleman is the director of culinary development for Indian Harvest, Bemidji, MN, and chairman of the advisory board of the Boston-based Whole Grains Council. He is a member of the Research Chefs Association.

5 Easy Ways to Incorporate Lesser-Known Whole Grains

Everyones talking whole grains these days as consumer interest soars. Chef Renee Zonka, RD, CEC, CHE, dean, The School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College, Chicago, suggests five simple, flavorful ways to capitalize on the goodness of whole grains.

Brown: the New White. Brown rice is one of the most-familiar whole grains to consumers. Less-common brown basmati capitalizes on that familiarity and gives it an intriguing twist. Replacing part of the white rice in a pilaf or casserole with brown basmati rice not only adds flavor and nutrition (such as fiber and magnesium), but also contrasting color and the alluring aroma of popped corn.

Better-for-You Breakfast. Smoothies are a perfect grab-and-go item. lend seasonal fresh fruits or berries and roasted chopped nuts or seeds into plain yogurt. Fold in cooked oatmeal, teff, amaranth or a whole-grain blend. This adds body and flavor while delivering a longer-lasting feeling of fullness, which translates to less snacking between meals.

Eggs, Oh So Easy. Incorporate cooked wheat berries or kamut wheat into a frittata for added dimension and menu interest. To scrambled eggs, consider a spoonful or two of cooked quinoa, which enhances mouthfeel and flavor while lending an extra dash of colorred, black, white or all three. Perceived value also gets a boost, which can command a higher price and profit.

Go Greek and Meatless. Among Mediterranean cuisines, Greek is rising to the fore. Replace the meat in stuffed grape leaves (dolmas) with cooked amaranth and brown rice. Add chopped onion and parsley, allspice and cinnamon, and raisins or chopped nuts. Wrap and braise in a savory vegetable stock. For a Greek-Mex grab-and-go, spike a chilled, cooked whole-grain blend with crumbled feta and a dollop of tzatziki and roll in a lightly grilled flour tortilla.

New Reverence for Risotto. Americans are rediscovering farro, a delicious replacement for Arborio and Carnaroli rices in risotto. Cook as usual with flavorful broth and good-quality Parmesan for a risotto with the nutritional benefits from farro that traditional risotto rices lack.

Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the healthy food and beverage industry.
Join 47,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like