Depending on who you ask, grains have been both revered and demonized by the food industry, researchers, and consumers on all sides, particularly in the last decade. With each rung of the supply chain fired up, food companies are left to figure out how to get grains in more consumers’ hands — and mouths.
One group of Harvard researchers recently released a study in the grain industry’s favor. The findings showed that people could potentially decrease their risk of premature death by 9% if they ate at least 33 grams of whole grains a day, as compared to those who rarely ate whole grains.
However, grains have also started to get edged out of healthy food diets due to concerns about gluten and heated debates over GMOs, which have sparked proposed GMO bans, lawsuits, and labeling initiatives across the country. These concerns already partially contributed to the declining cereal sales of the past few years, and food companies fear that more grain-containing product markets could be next.
Food companies are not at a total loss just yet. One way they’ve adapted to gluten-free consumer demands is to, rather than abandon grains altogether, instead use alternatives to corn, oats, and traditional wheat. Grains are making a comeback as trendy ingredients and finding their way back into health food circles thanks to sprouted grains and ancient grains. Companies are also using technology to reinvigorate the industry and reintroduce grains to the modern, savvy, health-conscious consumer.
Where grains sprout new benefits and marketing potential
Still a small but fast-growing niche, sprouted grains are attracting more consumers and manufacturers around the world. In the U.S., where this niche is developing most rapidly, food and nutrition expert Julian Mellentin predicts the sprouted grain market will grow to more than $250 million in sales by 2018—more than eight times the current $30 million.
The Whole Grains Council found that sprouted grains have health benefits over regular grains, such as higher levels of soluble fiber and certain vitamins and minerals as well as their nutrients’ ability to better withstand heat processing. According to the USDA, sprouted grains, as compared to whole grains, contain around 75% of the carbs, around 40% of the fat, less gluten, and even a bit more protein. The body can also digest sprouted grains more easily, as the sprouting process pre-digests the starches into simple sugars.
Consumer-wise, the major appeal of sprouted grains is for the average consumer who is either looking to cut carbs from his or her diet, particularly wheat and corn, or looking for better sources of “good carbs.” For manufacturers, the benefits of sprouted grains are already recognized by many U.S. consumers—17%, according to one survey—which cuts down on the marketing needed to explain those benefits. Plus, manufacturers can sell these products at a higher price than those using traditional grain ingredients.
While according to Mintel, companies released only 19 sprouted grains products in 2014, food companies big and small are jumping on the sprouted grains bandwagon. At the end of 2014, Kellogg announced seven new cereals, one of which was Kashi Sprouted Grains Multi-Grain organic cereal, made with oats, barley, spelt, and amaranth. Mainstream food retailer Sam’s Club now offers sprouted seven-grain bread and dinner rolls from Angelic Bakehouse at all its 634 locations in the U.S. Even Panera Bread hopped onboard with its own sprouted-grain bagel containing rye, spelt, and oat groats.
On the other end, in only three years, snack brand Way Better quickly grew its sales to $25 million after introducing its sprouted grains chips, made with flax, quinoa, kale, chia, and black beans, and crackers, made from barley, spelt, and emmer. Thanks to Better4U, consumers can even find Gluten Free Sprouted Ancient Grains Pizzas, which contain quinoa, flax, millet, and chia.
How grains can turn back time
Going hand-in-hand with sprouted grains are ancient grains, which more often than not overlap and can be found marketed either separately or together in the same product. While ancient grains are a fresh trend on western grocery store aisles, they’re anything but new.
The funny thing is, “ancient” grains aren’t any older than oats or regular wheat. But they’re more difficult to find and aren’t crops that have been nearly as popular as the handful of grains that permeate the standard American diet. According to NPR, one of the first known references to the term “ancient grains” came in a 1996 New York Daily News article, though the concept didn’t become mainstream until the past few years. Now, they’re gaining speed, and “old” is becoming “new” again.
Quinoa may be the best known grain in this category. But many other ancient grains have found their way from the lands of the Andes and Ethiopia several millennia ago to the modern dinner table. They’re seen as healthy alternatives to often-processed wheat, corn, and rice: chia, amaranth, millet, farro, spelt, freekeh, einkorn, teff, sorghum, kamut, and kaniwa (cousin of quinoa), to name a few.
For manufacturers and their marketing teams, ancient grains offer more than health benefits. In the minds of consumers, because these grains are considered “ancient,” the perception is that they’re not as processed as other traditional commercially used grains. Ancient grains are usually free of GMOs, and many are gluten-free or contain much less gluten than regular grains, all of which appeals to a host of different health food-seeking consumers.
At the end of last year, General Mills announced that ancient grains would be the star ingredients in its new Cheerios + Ancient Grains cereal, which contains small amounts of quinoa, Kamut wheat, and spelt in addition to the traditional oats. General Mills’ marketing manager for new products, Alan Cunningham, in a BBC News article, cited ancient grains’ “50% growth across all categories and a 44% growth in the cereal category” in the past year as motivation for using ancient grains in the new Cheerios line.
Cunningham said, “Consumers may feel that the barrier to eating ancient grains is that they're not convenient, so we figured a way to deliver them in a bowl of cereal.”
Applying innovation and technology
General Mills is turning to innovation and technology to boost the image and utility of grain-based products. In April 2014, the company launched a new oatmeal product, Nature Valley Bistro Cups, which could be made in a Keurig Home Brewing System.
After a test run in two Minneapolis-area retail outlets returned promising results, General Mills launched the product on Amazon, where it sold out on day one. From there, the single-serving oatmeal pods attracted distribution deals from major retailers, which now include more than 6,000 stores. General Mills became the first company to user single-serve brewer systems for food, and its product is still the only hot oatmeal compatible with the Keurig system.
From pioneering technology to hip, new grain strains, the grains industry continues to adapt to the changing wants and perceptions of consumers. With grains’ permeation of processed foods, it’s unlikely the industry as a whole is ever going anywhere, but it’s up to food companies to meet consumers’ expectations and drive innovation to save and/or expand their grain-based product lines.