Whole Grains Continue to be Trendy and Tasty

Sorghum, sprouting and sustainability—these were just a few of the topics presented at the recent Oldways Whole Grains Council Conference in Seattle. This biannual event brings together chefs, manufacturers, distributors and registered dietitians and provides the latest information on consumer attitudes about whole grains. The consensus among all presenters was that whole grains aren’t going anywhere, which is good news for those on a gluten-free diet.

Not just healthy

In her welcoming remarks, Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, noted that whole grains, no longer considered just a tasteless health food, have a wide range of uses in cooking and creating a low environmental footprint. Despite trends toward low-carb diets, people are consuming more whole grains than ever before. The council shared data from its 2018 Consumer Insights Survey, which found that two out of three people make at least half their grains whole, which is in line with the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines. More impressively, four out of five people who “nearly always” choose whole grain foods are eating more of them than they did five years ago.  

But why are whole grains so popular? Caroline Sluyter, director of the Oldways Whole Grains Council, thinks it’s a combination of health and taste. “Eating healthy foods is becoming trendier, and that includes whole grains,” Sluyter said at the conference. “Our palates are adjusting, too, and we’re coming to appreciate the fuller, richer flavor of whole grains.”

Going gluten free doesn’t mean that whole grains are off the table. Sluyter reported that 2018 survey data indicates more people are familiar with ancient grains, which include many gluten-free choices. The number of people who had heard of quinoa increased from 55 percent in 2015 to 68 percent in 2018, millet rose from 38 percent to 41 percent, and sorghum from 29 percent to 31 percent. The move toward ancient grains has extended to manufacturers and food service as well. The National Restaurant Association recently put ancient grains on its list of the Top 20 Food Trends for 2018.

Boil, drain and done!

“Using whole grains and whole-grain flour is a really good way to make a recipe more achievable and approachable, and just plain easier,” noted Andrea Geary, senior editor of Cook’s Illustrated magazine and America’s Test Kitchen, at the conference. Geary also acknowledged that can be a tough sell. She shared a recent question to the magazine’s Facebook page: “Do you cook and bake with whole grains? If not, why not?” The responses she received were eye-opening. “People were worried that whole grains might taste bad, that they aren’t compatible with the foods they know and love, that they take forever to cook and are easy to mess up, and would make baked goods heavy, dense and tough,” Geary said.

Geary said a fan-favorite recipe, fried rice, was the first time the magazine explored the benefits of cooking with whole grains. “Brown rice has some distinct advantages in this type of recipe,” noted Geary, “and it has nothing to do with nutrition and everything to do with the bran.” Bran, the outer layer of a grain, protects the food supply located in the endosperm. While refined grains strip the bran away, whole grains leave it intact, increasing nutritional content and durability of the grain during cooking. Geary pointed out that brown rice also speeds up preparation because it can be cooked utilizing the pasta method. “Many whole grains are easy to cook as pasta. Boil, drain and done!”

Brown rice also eliminates the need to chill the grain before adding it to the pan, which saves significant time. “You can take that grain, still warm from the colander, and throw it right in the wok,” advised Geary. “Unlike white rice that needs to be chilled down, the bran protects it, so it’s not going to clump together…It’s really sturdy.”

Sustainability is key

Climate change and a dramatic increase in the world’s population will soon necessitate a different approach to agriculture, noted Sharon Palmer, award-winning registered dietitian and author. “We’re all concerned because we are living on an increasingly hot and crowded planet. By 2050, it has been reported that we’re going to have 9.7 billion people.”

Increasing available land for agriculture to feed people means a negative impact on climate, greenhouse gas emissions and water usage. “We are using 70 percent of our fresh water supplies for agriculture,” warned Palmer. “And if we continue to eat a high animal-protein, Western-style diet, we could increase greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.” Greenhouse gas emissions come in the form of methane from livestock, nitrous oxide from fertilizer use and carbon dioxide from fossil fuels required to run tractors and other equipment.

Palmer suggested that plant-based diets could be part of the solution. “Dramatically reducing animal foods and increasing plant foods could be the most powerful thing we could do in our individual lifetimes to reduce our carbon footprint; this is even more impactful than the cars we drive,” she said. It is not necessary to be a full-time vegetarian to make a difference. A “flexitarian” approach (eating meat only occasionally) could cut greenhouse gas emissions by half and save enough water to take care of 1.8 billion additional people on the planet.

Whole grains in particular have the lowest carbon footprint among nearly 500 foods, Palmer said. “Grains grow in all sorts of climates, with less water and with soils that may not be as fertile. For example, sorghum has become particularly adapted to arid conditions and teff can thrive in drought and waterlogged soil.” These are also crops that have stood the test of time. Quinoa was domesticated in the Andes 4,000 years ago, amaranth is traced back to the Aztecs in Mexico, and teff is a regular staple in Ethiopia.

Gluten-free whole grains should be a significant part of a healthy, plant-based diet. Palmer suggested incorporating them into the popular food trend of bowls. “Bowls are not going away. Use a whole-grain base such as sorghum, add a flavorful vegetable, a healthy protein, and some sort of sauce.”

The benefits of sprouted grains

While they sound like something found only in a health food store a few years ago, sprouted grains are becoming mainstream. They are even making their way to the gluten-free market. Sprouted gluten-free grains can be found in everything from crackers to pancake mixes. Some are sold as ready-to-eat toppings for salads or yogurt.

“A sprouted grain is a germinated seed,” said Carlee Kelly, MSN, co-founder of Lettuce Eat. “It’s a seed that’s awakened from its dormant state.” This germination occurs when the right combination of temperature, moisture and light come together, which activate enzymes that initiate a cascade of chemical reactions within the seed.

“Sprouting is a positive form of processing,” noted Kelly. “So often, processing methods are stripping the nutritional content from our foods. Sprouting is a form of natural processing of grains that can enhance their nutritional attributes.” Potential nutritional benefits of consuming sprouted grains include better bioavailability of iron, zinc, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, phosphorous, potassium and folic acid. Also, there are increased levels of protein, fiber and antioxidants in these grains.

Looking to the future

The Whole Grain Stamp program also continues to see growth, with the stamp currently appearing on more than 12,000 products. The amounts of whole grains in products are also steadily increasing. “In 2008, the average product had 19 grams of whole grain; today it’s 25 grams,” said Sluyter. “I think that’s very exciting. It’s driven a lot by consumer demand and product innovation by manufacturers who are making whole grains more delicious.”

While quinoa is still a favorite, Sluyter said she is frequently asked what grains she sees as up-and-comers. “We don’t like to play favorites here at the Whole Grains Council, but it was very interesting to take a look at the prevalence of various ancient grain ingredients that are being registered and see that both sorghum and teff had really consistent growth over the last several years. That’s where I’m putting my money.”

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