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Trends > Ancient Grains

Whole grains consumption increases thanks to plant-forward diet, focus on new flavors

By Elizabeth Crawford

20-Jun-2016
Last updated on 20-Jun-2016 at 15:15 GMT2016-06-20T15:15:24Z

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

Once shunned for their distinct taste and texture, whole grains are gaining acceptance among more Americans for these same attributes thanks in part to innovative restaurateurs and chefs who are using them to round-out increasingly popular plant-forward dishes, according to the Whole Grains Council.

“There is a lot going on right now … with the food movement in general that really has opened up a lot of opportunities for whole grains,” Kelly Toups, the council’s program director told FoodNavigator-USA.

For example, she explained that whole grains are taking a starring role in the burgeoning plant-forward diet where meat is used only as a garnish and vegetables are more the main event.

“The Culinary Institute of America is encouraging their chefs to cook with less meat … and because a pile of kale is not a whole meal on its own, whole grains are needed to add heartiness to the dish so that customers leave feeling satiated instead of short changed that their meat serving wasn’t as big” as they may be accustomed to, Toups said.

In addition, because restaurants are not spending as much money on expensive cuts of meat, they can invest in ancient grains that are more novel and adventurous to consumers, such as farro and amaranth, “without overloading their budgets, too much,” she said.

Whole grains are no longer a chore

In turn, as consumers try a greater variety of whole grains beyond the traditional whole wheat, oats and brown rice their perspective is shifting so that they view the grains’ flavors and textures as a positive rather than a negative that must be endured to reap the health benefits, Toups said.

Now, more than 40% of Americans consider the taste and flavor of whole grains as a main reason to buy them, Toups said, citing a survey of about 1,500 US adults conducted last summer for the Whole Grains Council. She added this is more than the 37% of respondents who said the taste and texture of whole grains is a turn off.

As more menus, cookbooks and magazines cast a positive light on the flavor of whole grains, “the nutritious aspect of whole grains is actually being downplayed or even bypassed altogether,” Toups said. This, in turn, is helping to push aside the increasingly archaic perception that eating whole grains is a chore.

Overcoming limited availability

The increasing presence of a variety of whole grains on menus and in stores also is helping to address the issue of availability, which 28% of adults surveyed by the council cited as a problem, Toups noted. The other major barrier to eating whole grains listed by survey respondents was cost.

Still, more can be done to increase the presence of whole grains on menus, which is why Toups said the Whole Grains Council is focusing most of its promotional activity in 2016 on “whole grains away from home.”

She explained that despite progress in schools and homes, at restaurants it “can still be tricky sometimes to find whole grain options, or if there is a whole grain option it isn’t the most popular choice. For example, sometimes Italian restaurants might write in italics at the bottom of the menu in small font something like ‘whole grain pasta available upon request,’ but it’s not fully integrated into the entire menu.”

One way the Council is address this is by hosting a conference in Chicago about Whole Grains Away From Home that will invite food service professionals and people who work in restaurants to interact with manufacturers who make whole grains, Toups said.

Sustainability concerns boost whole grain consumption

Whole grains also are getting a helping hand from consumers’ increasing interest in eating sustainably, Toups said.

“One thing that doesn’t get talked about very often is a lot of these grains don’t take as much water to produce as other food groups,” she said.

“It takes 18 gallons of water to produce an egg and 25 gallons to produce 2 ounces of Turkey, 36 gallons of water for a glass of milk and 197 gallons of water for 4 ounces of beef. [Now], compare all of these things to two slices of bread for a sandwich, which just takes 6.4 gallons of water, and 2 ounces of rice is just 15 gallons. So, it gives you some perspective,” she explained.

She also noted that some lesser-known grains, including millet, are great options because they’ve been at the core of traditional diets for a long time, including in periods of extreme drought.

“So, if you look for different crops to withstand these changing weather patterns, whole grains and, ancient grains in particular, could be a really good place to start,” Toups said, adding they take less fertilizer and irrigation than most current commodity plants.

“All of this makes whole and ancient grains an attractive choice for those consumers who are wanting to shop with their carbon footprint in mind,” she added. 

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