Going with the Grain

Ancient varieties provide consumers with healthful, new options.

September 07, 2005|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN FOOD EDITOR

The low-carb craze is fading and suddenly it's safe to eat grains again.

But not just any grain. Today the emphasis is on whole grains. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's new food guidelines recommend that consumers eat at least three servings of whole grains a day, and food makers have rushed to fill the bill.

General Mills reformulated its cereals so that now even Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs are made with whole grains. King Arthur Flour has just introduced a new line of baking mixes made from whole grains, and even Wonder Bread has turned to a whole-grain albino wheat that will still give the bread that spongy texture kids love.

But the whole-grain options go beyond traditional wheat, rye, oats and barley.

Small specialty-grain producers are seeing new business sprout as consumers discover ancient grains that had been nearly lost to modern farming practices. At Bob's Red Mill in Milwaukie, Ore., sales have been increasing by 20 percent a year as consumers turn to organic whole grains, said Dennis Gilliam, executive vice president of sales and marketing.

The company started 27 years ago and sold mainly to health-food stores. Today business has expanded with a retail store and Web site that offer specialty whole grains, including amaranth, sorghum, flaxseed, quinoa, teff, millet, Kamut, spelt and buckwheat.

And at Sunnyland Mills, a Fresno, Calif., company that makes bulgur and grano wheat products, sales are up 75 percent over a year ago.

"Now people are waking up that these are whole grains, they are good for you and they taste pretty good," said Mike Orlando, a Sunnyland owner.

Ironically, it might have been low-carb diets that galvanized the grain producers to boost their marketing efforts. "The industry hadn't been doing much," said Judi Adams, president of the Grain Foods Foundation, a group of milling companies and food retailers that banded together to promote the benefits of grain products.

And the Oldways Preservation Trust, dismayed by the public's turn against grains a few years ago, founded the Whole Grains Council to get the word out about whole grain's health benefits.

But while the marketing efforts are fairly new, the companies that make and sell specialty-grain products have been in business for years, supplying health-food stores and consumers with wheat allergies who sought alternatives to traditional grain foods.

"There have always been hard-core enthusiasts," Gilliam said. But he estimates that the consumers of whole-grain products have grown from about 10 percent of the population to a quarter of the population.

No one keeps statistics on the production and consumption of the specialty grains, but producers say business has never been better.

Many of the grains come with fascinating histories as well as distinctive flavors.

Kamut, for instance, is the trademarked name of a durum wheat a soldier brought back from Egypt after World War II. "It was just a novelty grain at first," said Debbie Quinn Blyth, whose family started the Kamut Association.

Her father began producing it in the late 1970s, thinking he might puff the grains and sell them like popcorn. But then, he discovered that people with wheat allergies seemed better able to tolerate Kamut, and the movement toward whole grain and natural products took off. Now 1,000 acres are under contract, mostly in the United States. "It has a sweet, nutty taste," Blyth said. "People love it."

Twenty years ago, Larry Walters read an article about the nutritional qualities of amaranth, an ancient grain that is high in fiber and iron and yet is gluten-free, so it can be tolerated by people with celiac disease. Walters found some farmers willing to take a chance on growing this grain, bought a mill and began marketing amaranth products.

"It can be used in almost any application that wheat can be used in," said Walters' wife, Diane, who is in charge of marketing for their company, Nu-World Amaranth. "Now with the emphasis on whole grain, people are just starting to hear about it," she said. "We are growing as we speak."

Sifting through the varieties

Amaranth. Amaranth kernels are tiny. When cooked, they resemble brown caviar. It is gluten-free and has a higher level of protein than most grains. Popular in cereals, breads, muffins, crackers and pancakes.

Flaxseed. Although technically a seed rather than a grain, it nevertheless is prized for its health benefits. Research has shown it can help lower cholesterol. It can be eaten whole or used in baked goods.

Grano Polished durum wheat berries originated in Italy and are enjoyed in traditional Italian dishes.

Kamut. The trademarked name of an ancient wheat once grown in Egypt. Rich and buttery-tasting, this grain is grown on organic farms primarily in Montana.

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