Gluten-Free Whole Grains Update: The 2016 Whole Grains Council Conference

From fine dining to fast food, gluten-free whole grains are trendy, according to presenters at the 2016 Whole Grains Conference in Chicago. This is great news for people on the gluten-free diet. More whole grains means more choices beyond white rice on the menu. It also means more nutrition in every bite.

Datassential’s 2015 Menu Trend report found that sorghum, quinoa, millet and amaranth all experienced increased popularity on restaurant menus. The National Restaurant Association 2016 “What’s Hot” survey reported that ancient grains—of which many are gluten free—were the No. 15 restaurant trend. Not only do people finally know how to pronounce “quinoa,” they know how to cook it, and it’s showing up everywhere!


Maria Speck, the author of Simply Ancient Grains and Ancient Grains for Modern Meals*, shared many of her beautiful and inventive recipes with attendees. “So many of these ancient grains are gluten free,” she notes. Speck’s upbringing in Germany and influences from her mother’s Mediterranean cooking inspired her love of whole grains. She noted that many grains are easy to prepare and don’t require special equipment. Many can even be prepared ahead on weekends and then used in recipes throughout the week. Quick-cooking gluten-free whole grains include amaranth, buckwheat, millet, polenta and quinoa.

Speck, along with many other speakers, emphasized that the taste and versatility of whole grains, not necessarily the health benefits, hold the most appeal to consumers. However, whole grains provide many health benefits for those on the gluten-free diet, including increased fiber, protein, B vitamins, magnesium and iron.


Author and chef Joel Schaefer spoke about the nutritional benefits of millet in his presentation, “Mighty Millet: The Grain of Harmony.” He explained that this versatile gluten-free grain can be used in soups, pilafs, salads and porridge, as well as patties. Registered dietitian Sharon Palmer featured sorghum, an excellent source of fiber and a good source of plant-based protein. Both Schaefer and Palmer demonstrated recipes highlighting these grains (see sidebar for Palmer’s Stir-Fried Thai Sorghum Bowl) that attendees later sampled at an evening reception.


Sorghum BowlAccording to Kara Nielsen, food and beverage trend expert and strategist, bowls are a big trend, and they’re not going anywhere. “This is beyond a trend,” she notes, “and this is the way we eat right now for a lot of different reasons.” Chef Colleen Donnelly agrees that “everyone is doing bowls.” Fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle have been serving them for years, but they are increasingly popular in a variety of foodservice settings, including schools, colleges and workplace cafeterias. Donnelly also notes that bowls are very popular with kids. Chef Ann Cooper of the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado encouraged schools to add whole grains to salad bars as kids may be less afraid to try them if they are part of another meal.

Bowls have the advantage of being customizable, not only for taste but also for special diets, such as gluten free, and different cultures and ethnicities. Nielsen likened them to the variety found in sandwiches. And, like sandwiches, bowls are portable and easy to eat.

The bowl starts with the cooked whole grain; for those on the gluten-free diet, sorghum, quinoa or brown rice is the most common base. Add protein in the form of fish, chicken, beef, pork, beans, eggs or tofu. Top with a variety of vegetables, nuts, herbs or cheese. Finish with healthy fats like avocado and a dressing or sauce. Making grain bowls can take practice as far as figuring out which ingredients work together and how much sauce to add. “They can also get too big and have too many calories,” Nielsen advises.


Nielsen also noted the trend of more popped and puffed snacks like I Heart Keenwah and Boom ChickaPop. She’s seeing growth in other puffed and popped grains, like millet and amaranth, as well.


Mark DiDomenico, director, client solutions, Datassential, who has followed foodservice trends for 25 years, shared a question he gets frequently: What is the next quinoa? “Well, quinoa is the next quinoa,” he said. “It’s still growing. It’s not going anywhere.” Quinoa is in what he terms the “proliferation” stage, where
it is not only showing up on fine dining menus but is also making its way to fast food.

It is important to note, however, that not all restaurant items with quinoa are gluten free, as some may also include gluten-containing grains. DiDomenico reports that quinoa appears on 9 percent of all restaurant menus, and is most popular in bowls and burgers.

He notes that brown rice is also now on 10 percent of menus, particularly in Asian restaurants. Sorghum, meanwhile, is in the “inception” stage, making its way onto fine dining menus and in ethnic fare. The addition of whole grains to restaurant menus means more choice, more taste and more nutrition for gluten-free diners.


Amy Jones is a registered dietitian and celiac disease support group leader in Ohio. She is the chair of the Dietitians in Gluten Intolerance Diseases practice group for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She also serves on the dietetic advisory board of Gluten-Free Living.


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One thought on “Gluten-Free Whole Grains Update: The 2016 Whole Grains Council Conference

  1. As time goes by I hope grains keep increasing their popularity, so people on a gluten free diet can have more options to eat healthy, also for people not on a gluten free diet to begin considering them as part of their diet and for kids to live a healthier style of life. You can learn more about gluten by reading this complete article, from what is it and its effects,

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