Looking at the Whole-Grain Picture

December 5, 2005

20 Min Read
Looking at the Whole-Grain Picture


Looking at the Whole-Grain Picture

By Kimberly J. Decker
Contributing Editor

Sylvester Graham was a man ahead of his time. This crusty Presbyterian minister and allaround gadfly was, as early as the 1820s, railing against many of todays dietary outrages. While his condemnation of ketchup and mustard (which he suspected of breeding insanity) might not rank high among recent reforms, his campaigns against adulteration of the food supply, alcohol and its excesses, and the general dissipation of body and spirit as a result of overindulgence in fatty flesh foods have, in some fashion, carried his legacy into the 21st century.

The cause that carried his name, however, was that which sought, in Grahams clerical phraseology, never to put asunder what God has joined together. The good reverend was on a crusade to save whole-wheat grain bran, germ and all from the sinful ravages of refinement.

To Grahams contemporaries, snowy-white flour and foods made with it were a sign of refinement and culture that matched how the customer wanted their products, says Glen Weaver, director of technical services, ConAgra Mills, Omaha, NE.

They were looking at how to get better texture, better flavor, and better overall appearance versus the wholegrain product, which at that time was pretty coarse and would make a pretty dense product. How little has changed.

Having stripped whole-grain goodness from foods, it should come as no surprise that reversing course will exercise new formulation muscles. You basically have to have better manufacturing practices if youre going to be primary in whole-grain products, Weaver says. You have to be very good at what you do. So I think people who work with whole grains and really pay attention actually become better manufacturers overall, because their disciplines have to be better.

Refined versus whole

If Reverend Graham were still around, he probably wouldnt have appreciated the irony that his namesake crackers are now mostly refined flour. Refined grains have become the industry norm for solid, practical reasons. As author Harold McGee points out in On Food & Cooking, There are certainly drawbacks and waste involved in using refined flours and degerminated meals, but it should be clear that it is not simply a matter of industrial arrogance.

Refining gives people what they want and have wanted for a long time, says McGee: a pure-looking product that wont spoil quickly on the shelf. This is courtesy the unrefined grain, which consists of roughly three parts: bran, endosperm and germ. The bran, essentially a multilayered shell enveloping the grain kernel, protects the germ and endosperm and provides antioxidants, protein, B vitamins and fiber. Just below the bran is the large, starchy endosperm, which at about 83% of the kernels mass, supplies the growing seed with carbohydrate and protein nourishment, along with micronutrient vitamins and minerals. In the kernels corner is the plant embryo, or germ, containing B vitamins, proteins, minerals and unsaturated fats.

The unsaturation of fats predisposes them to oxidation in as quickly as several weeks, inviting rancidity in products that contain the germ. The fibrous bran contributes compounds, like some tannins and phenols, that are going to impart a taste that, perhaps, the consumer isnt used to, says Christine Fastnaught, Ph.D., a Fargo, NDbased cereal scientist and research consultant with the National Barley Foods Council.

In addition to its aesthetic challenges, a grains bran is, in the words of Topher Dohl, applications technologist, MGP Ingredients, Inc., Atchison, KS, a processing dead weight particularly in yeast-risen breads. Such breads rely on a strong, elastic gluten network to set into a buoyant loaf structure. In a refined flour, Dohl says, you have particles that are very small, and the gluten proteins in the flour are able to suspend them because of their gas-retaining ability.

Jagged hunks of bran in wholegrain flour, however, not only overload the glutens suspension network but, by crowding-out gluten-forming proteins, decrease dough extensibility and further diminish loaf volume. That fibrous material from the bran really doesnt bring anything to the party from a structural standpoint in baking, says Harold Ward, manager of technical services, ConAgra. Its inert material. For an inert material, bran sure is thirsty. Kent Symns, president, Farmer Direct Foods, Inc., Atchison, KS, has found that whole-wheat flour because of the brans fibers always absorbs more water than refined, and absorbs it more slowly. Almost every time that somebody changes to a new whole-grain formulation for the first time, they start out making a dough that looks right to them. But, as it goes further into the process, the bran continues to absorb water, and the dough becomes too dry to work well. So theyve got to start their dough a little to the wet side Theyre not going to have satisfactory performance if they dont get enough water into their dough, he says.

Water is one ingredient that manufacturers rarely begrudge increasing, but the ramifications of whole grains moisture affinity arent without consequence. For example, notes Larry Walters, food scientist and founder, Nu-World Amaranth Inc., Naperville, IL, sometimes you want a product to release the water in a hurry, something thats not likely with water-loving whole grains. Thus, when making wholegrain products, he suggests tinkering with the line to reduce the bake temperature while increasing bake time to help drive-off the moisture that you would typically drive-off in your normal baking.

In most cases, whole grains also alter bread dough machineability, obliging bakers to change their doughhandling procedures and, sometimes, formulations. In general, Ward says, whole-wheat products tend to require less mixing. One reason is that the size and coarseness of the bran particles shred the very glutens we aim to develop when we mix. What happens, then, is you tend to mix the dough shorter, Ward says.

Kirk ODonnell, Ed.D., vice president, education, American Institute of Baking (AIB), Manhattan, KS, suggests mixing slowly to protect the gluten in a whole-grain dough. This not only aids water absorption, but with a lower level of gluten in the dough to begin with, we have to treat it more carefully. A higher speed would reduce your tolerance and reduce your room for error. The higher speed you mix at, the quicker you mix out but the more chance you have to overdo it, he says.

Formulating with functional proteins can bolster and support a wholegrain breads gluten network, notes Ody Maningat, vice president of applications technology and technical services, MGP. We need to have another protein source that will help grains like the rye, oats and barley to form a dough similar to a wheat dough, he says. So its almost like were making a composite flour by adding a wheat protein. If you have a grain flour that doesnt form a good gluten dough, but then you add a starting point of maybe 12% to 15% of that external protein source using wheat protein isolate or vital wheat gluten then it will act like a wheat flour.

With their concentrated proteins, wheat protein isolates give the most bang for the buck Dohl adds. When youre limited in how much you can add, he says, you should go for the higher-function ingredient.

Higher function means higher cost, which, taken with whole grains other downsides, explains why refined grains and flours became the ingredients of choice. A lot of that choice to use refined ingredients has to do with ease of processing and machineability, says Weaver. Its a lot easier to bake a bread product with 100%-refined flour than it would be with 100% coarse wheat due to particle size, water competition and oxidation considerations. Gluten-matrix concerns are also a factor. In general, refined flour is easier to work with because you do not have to deal with the fibrous materials and some of the oils that would be associat- ed with the germ. It makes a more-tolerant product thats easier to process.

Such tolerance comes at a price, and its Americas public health that pays. By eliminating a grains most nutritionally relevant portions the bran and germ refining puts the grain at a protein deficit of about 25% and robs it of more than a dozen important minerals, healthful oils, fibers, phytonutrients and B vitamins. You have to look at the times during which refining developed, Weaver says. There probably wasnt a lot of good science then on the phytochemicals and some of the health benefits associated with the bran and the germ, which were being removed in the process. That wasnt part of the equation, whereas if you look today at the impact on chronic diseases, where people understand the role of, for example, vitamin E in whole grains, fibers and other phytochemicals associated with wholegrain products, it has a much more compelling story.

The evidence is impossible to ignore. David R. Jacobs, Jr., Ph.D., professor of epidemiology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, found that people who eat whole-grain products on a daily basis reduced their risk of death from all causes by 15% to 25%. He speculates that its not just the grains fiber, but rather the whole grain fiber, vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants responsible for the effect.

Bake it, and they will buy?

Notwithstanding this buzz, rumors of refinements death are greatly exaggerated. While the food industry has been responsive to the potential for increased whole-grain demand, the number of new products is still far below low-fat and low-carb product introductions. This responsiveness will likely accelerate in the face of actual increases in demand for whole grains, noted the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) publication Amber Waves in its July issue. As consumers respond to whole grains with more fervor, supply will likely strive to match demand.

As the exposure to whole grains increases through media attention, increased actions by the government, as well as the food industry, there will be a wider audience thats willing to investigate and consume whole grains, notes Steve Ham, director of marketing, specialty ingredients, MGP. Its about shifting away from whats considered normal. If the mainstream is refined-flour products, then in order for consumers to capture the nutritional benefits of whole grains, they will have to adjust to the sensory differences, as well.

Helping consumers get used to whole grains is where savvy product development brings its strengths to bear, and the work starts with the very question of which foods warrant formulation, or reformulation, in a wholegrain vein. Conceptually, two schools divide the issue: the purists, for whom the most-appropriate whole-grain applications are the most traditional, and the realists who deploy technology to meet consumers on their own terms. Neither side, as it happens, wins the day. The purists fight a losing battle for the simple reason that if formulating and marketing traditional wholegrain products were enough to bring more consumers on board, Americans would already be meeting their quotas and we could call it a day.

Consumers, however, need coddling, and that may mean giving Twinkie the Kid® a whole-grain makeover. Youve got breads, cereals, bars, cookies I think that companies are really just trying to reach the areas that are common snacks or everyday foods that people eat, says Jennifer Gaul, applications technologist, MGP.

But not all goodies can survive a whole-grain overhaul, nor should they: If a product wants to wear the wholegrain claim, it has to abide by the ceilings on fat and cholesterol in FDAs ruling, and in a formula functionally dependent of significant fat and sugar, theres precious little room in which to squeeze 51% whole-grains by weight, anyway. Typical serving sizes for cookies, cakes, pies and other treats are usually insufficient to deliver enough whole grain for an excellent or good source designation unless we want to engage in the ethically dubious enterprise of encouraging consumers to go ahead and have an even bigger dessert then theyve already chosen.

Perhaps thats why not all formulators aim for a whole-grain claim, notes Bob Hansen, manager of technical services, Briess Malt & Ingredients Co., Chilton, WI. One of the things thats exciting for me is that not only do we see people reformulating in order to make specific health claims, which is going to be a market-driven decision, but we also see people doing it just to try to create more healthful foods regardless of whether or not theyll actually be able to make a health claim with them, he says. This enlightened self-interest not only widens a manufacturers options for formulation, but gives consumers more choices with which to improve their diets, as well.

A range of formulations can ease consumers into whole-grain goodness. If there could be other definitions for a whole-grain food such that we can address taste and texture by using only a certain percentage of whole-grain ingredients in a formula, I think that would help, says Maningat. I think thats one of the reasons why a company like Sara Lee decided to introduce a whole-grain bread that contains just enough to meet a certain standard as a good source of whole grains without departing that far from what is considered a white bread in terms of taste and texture.

Its difficult to create whole-grain products least of all fluffy breads and airy cakes that are indistinguishable from their refined-grain cousins. Even cookies, which have already hit the market in whole-grain guise, dont make the transition without a hitch. Whole grains increase water absorption, Maningat points out, which makes the cookie spread less. And spread is a critical quality parameter in cookie baking. Also, the cracking pattern on the surface like you see on some sugar cookies is affected because of the increase in water absorption.

ODonnell, whos tested some whole-grain cookie formulations at AIB baking seminars (including an incredible quinoa-flour cookie that he swears tasted just like a peanutbutter cookie without the peanuts), counsels careful balancing of water, sugar and fat in order to avert such problems. Cookies are primarily based on the sugar and fat that hold the cookie together, and so we just adjusted that and adjusted our water accordingly, he says.

We also did some whole-grain cream cakes, ODonnell continues, referring to a class of high-oil, longshelf- life cakes commonly baked in loaf or Bundt pans that are like pumpkin or banana bread. They intentionally chose these as whole-grain proving grounds because the cakes are dense, more coarsely textured and darker in color. Thus, the exacerbating effects that whole-grain flour has on those characteristics dont register as deficits, as they would in, say, an angel-food or sponge cake. When AIB cakecourse instructors evaluate students work, ODonnell says, we grade the cakes on the silkiness of the texture and the tightness of the grain. Unfortunately, whole grains are somewhat detrimental to these attributes.

Natural whole-grain fits

Breakfast cereals, bars, snack chips and crackers make ideal vehicles for whole grains. I think a lot more different whole grains could go into snack foods, says Fastnaught. She cites tortilla chips as one example. Manufacturers have the option of making such chips with whole-grain corn tortillas. We can actually make them better by mixing lots of different whole grains into them, she says.

Researcher Nancy Ames, cereal chemist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canadas Cereal Research Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba, has gotten the ball rolling with the development of tortillas that include barley flour as a blending agent and principal ingredient. The reformulated tortillas display impressive dough extensibility an important tortilla parameter attributable to barleys unique starch characteristics and soluble fibers. And because tortillas dont require the same gluten structure of other breads, barleys relative lack of gluten-forming proteins isnt a liability. Other benefits include improved texture and increased shelf life resulting from moisture retention, reduced cost compared to wheat, and, of course, nutritional appeal.

The granola bars raison dêtre was to pack whole grains into a tidy, portable form. While the category has evolved to embrace everything from crumbly, oat-flecked nuggets to smooth, slick extruded energy slabs, all of them benefit from grains. If you look at bars and, say, you want to use a brown rice flour, Hansen says, an instantized version would be the first choice. The heat involved in the process destroys the enzymes that make it go rancid, so it is a stable flour, he explains. It also removes the raw flavor of the raw grain, so it has a slightly cooked note, which improves the bars profile. Even digestibility increases relative to a bar made with raw starch.

As for extruded bars, manufacturers basically take whatever their inclusions are without any cooking, mix them with some sort of binder say, brown rice syrup or corn syrup and then press them or extrude them out and cut them, Hansen says. Absent any cook step, formulation with precooked or pretreated grains is critical so that the bars not going to break your teeth when you bite into it, he adds.

The challenges of formulating whole-grain crackers are different still. Most versions Reverend Grahams included contain only minor amounts of whole-grain flour. The reason, says Lori Napier, manager of food applications, Tate & Lyle Americas, Decatur, IL, traces to those fibrous particles of bran. When we make crackers, she explains, some of the processing functionality that were looking for is that you need to create a dough system cohesive enough that when it goes through the sheeter rolls, youre not going to create holes or have a very-fragile dough sheet. And thats difficult to do with whole-grain formulations where bran interrupts the sheets integrity.

Whole grains also foil organoleptic expectations by generating a different cracker chew. When you formulate a snack cracker thats entirely whole wheat, Napier says, it tends to break into discrete particles and gives you a grainy or mealy texture. To counteract these drawbacks, she suggests supplementing whole-grain-cracker formulations with a blend of partially hydrolyzed wheat protein, wheat gluten, modified starch, maltodextrin and sucralose that, at about a 10% level in a formula, eases production and yields a better-chewing cracker. Were using a significant amount of modified protein in the blend, she says, which is of smaller molecular weight than vital wheat gluten. That allows a little more extensibility in the dough sheet while still keeping it cohesive.

Expansion during puffing or extrusion is the chief functional concern among whole-grain-cereal manufacturers. The best thing for puffing is starch, Fastnaught says. The more starch you have, the better it puffs. And so any time you incorporate protein or fiber, and even oil to a certain degree all of which are relatively plentiful in whole grains youre going to reduce that puff.

Even so, manufacturers have had little problem adjusting to wholegrain formulations, as the quick cereal reformulations from General Mills, Minneapolis, proves. And some cereals arent even made by extrusion, Hansen points out. Look at a flaked-rice cereal that simply switches from white rice to brown: A processor can make that product with whole grain. Now, it may require a slightly different cooking of the cereal. They may have to compensate by adding more water. It may take a little bit longer. And they may have to deal with reduced shelf life of their raw ingredients because of the reduced shelf life of brown rice. Then there may be some color and perception differences on the part of the consumer. But other than those difficulties, the process of taking rice, cooking it with sugar, flaking it out through a steam flaker, drying it, and sugar-coating it brown rice versus white rice doesnt pose a lot of challenges in that type of application.

It shows how far weve come since Sylvester Grahams day. But the very fact that his efforts have reemerged suggests that we can learn from the past, as well. A couple years ago, Hansen recalls, before the fad really started hitting, people started doing some research on beta glucans, and some exciting stuff was coming up that way. New nutritional insights tend to hit home when it comes to consumer concerns.

During a whole-grains talk at an industry-association meeting, he remembers one of the speakers observing: Its obvious that, for so many years, weve been taking the best part of the grain, isolating it and then throwing it away. And its nice to see that, finally, were looking back and returning to bringing all the healthful aspects of the grain back into foods.

Wheat That's White

Theres a lot of diversity in tastes and preferences that exist today in the market, says Don Brown, vice president of business development, ConAgra Mills, Omaha, NE. For some, nothing but a dense, crusty loaf of eight-grain makes it to the toaster. But for peanut butter and jelly, he points out, its got to be white bread. So there are situational consumers out there, and there are also different segments of people who have strong preferences, either from a taste standpoint or from a nutrition standpoint, who are going to in one or the other direction.

Take Junior, for example. Even with the crusts cut off, a sandwich on whole wheat wont make it past the cafeteria trash can if he eats like a typical child. So to ensure that he gets his full supply of whole grains in spite of personal tastes, the baking industry has developed a menagerie of whole-wheat sandwich breads that hoodwink kids into thinking theyre eating white. Their secret? Simply a confluence of carefully chosen white-wheat strains with advances in milling technology.

ConAgra was instrumental in revving the trend with its Ultragrain flour, whose founding concept, Brown says, was to bridge the gap between taste and nutrition by providing whole grain to consumers in a format that delivers the taste and texture that they expect from the bread products that theyve grown up with. By introducing consumers to the softer side of whole grains, the flour and others like it show the potential to warm-up consumers to more-substantial whole-grain fare later on down the line.

The linchpin in the milling process allows it to reduce the bran and germ components of the wheat berry to the same particle-size distribution as the endosperm, Brown says. Therefore, you dont have the textural differences that are typically present in whole-grain wheat products. As for wheat-strain selection, the hard-white winter wheat theyve chosen still offers the functional advantages of darker varieties but has the taste that would give us a milder profile than traditional whole wheats, says Brown.

As a whole-wheat flour albeit a cleverly disguised one the product doesnt behave entirely like refined: The color splits the difference between dark brown and stark white at a pale golden; water absorption is greater than in a refined flour; and the dough requires a shorter mix time.

Ive worked with it all the way from very low percentages up to 100%, says Harold Ward, manager of technical services, ConAgra. It is still a whole-grain flour, so at 100% youre going to see some differences from 100%-refined flour. But any differences that youre going to see in the finished product or that youll encounter in formulation and processing are going to be relative to the inclusion rate.

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in Consumer Food Science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected].

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