Sept. 5, 2016 | by S.A. Whitehead
Getting 'granular' about restaurants' many possible uses for whole grains

It's little wonder that restaurateurs are increasingly seeking new ways to incorporate some very old grains into their menus. The snowballing trend toward healthful eating from sustainable sources makes the choice of the older — sometimes ancient — high protein whole grains in all their many varieties a no-brainer choice for New Age consumers. 

Grains like amaranth, quinoa, kamut and teff provide some pretty astounding nutritional benefits, as well as rich flavors and less negative impact on the environment than other protein sources. In these ways, whole grains are very much a triple threat when it comes to competition for that rareified air shared by today's trendiest foods. In short, these grains are on the leading edge of the culinary knife and can help QSR brands create menu items particularly attractive to that particularly attractive demographic: millennials. 

That's one reason why we recently sought expert input on how everyone from the single food truck operator to the largest fast casual chain could work more grains of a greater variety into their menus. The nonprofit Whole Grains Council and its crack staff of nutritionists, scientists and culinary experts filled this informational need nicely.

According to Datassential's 2015 Menu Trends Report, sorghum, millet, quinoa, amaranth, and bulgur have shown some of the strongest growth on restaurant menus in the past year.

This organization, based in Boston, works to increase whole grain consumption through education of food-centric businesses, the media and consumers.  After 13 years, the organization has not only grown phenomenally in membership, but also has created volumes of publicly available information and education for businesses, the media and the general public about these useful foods. 

In fact, the Whole Grains Council has even launched a food packaging stamp for whole grain goods, which as of this August was emblazoned on more than 11,000 products in 55 countries.

One of the chief activities of the council is to work with businesses in food service to gain a better understanding of what's available in whole grains, as well as its advantages, sources and benefits. 

We discussed this and more with Whole Grains Council Program Director Kelly Toups: 

Q: How do you work with restaurateurs interested in more grain use?  

A:As a trusted resource of whole grain information, we field questions from a number of food service dietitians, marketers, and recipe developers, about how to best incorporate whole grains into their menus, as well as how to market them and understand relevant regulations. ... In fact, Sept. 25 to 27, we're hosting a food service-themed conference in Chicago, "Whole Grains Away from Home," to inspire more food service operators to incorporate more whole grains.

Q: Is interest in grains growing among restaurateurs? 

A:Interest in whole grains is growing, especially over the past few years. According to Datassential's menu trends 2015 report, the term "whole grain" is mentioned on 40 percent more menus now, compared to four years ago. Quinoa leads the way — appearing on more than 7 percent of all menus, and an impressive 20 percent of fast casual menus — according to Datassential.

Additionally, according to the 2016 International Food Information Council Food and Health survey, 76 percent of respondents rate whole grains as "healthy," compared to only 33 percent for enriched grains. 

This survey also found that, perhaps due in part to the rising popularity of whole foods in their natural form, 1 in 5 people have an improved opinion on the healthfulness of whole grains, and 7 in 10 of these people report that they're consuming more.  

Similarly, in a 2015 report from HealthFocus International, 71 percent of respondents spanning 16 countries reported that they want whole grains as a source of nutrition. The report also found that the international awareness of ancient grains was up from 26 percent in 2012 to 28 percent in 2014, with 35 percent of the respondents expressing an interest in ancient grains.

Q: How many grains are currently available and being used commercially and what are they?

A:It is difficult to quantify the number of whole grains available commercially, as small farmers and enthusiastic importers are continually seeking out heritage and heirloom varieties of common whole grains, and long-forgotten ancient grains. According to Datassential's 2015 menu trends report, sorghum, millet, quinoa, amaranth, and bulgur have shown some of the strongest growth on restaurant menus in the past year.

Desserts, perhaps more than any other type of food, leave ample room for experimentation. Pastry chefs are becoming enamored with the depth and richness that whole grain flours can add to baked goods, from sweet spelt flours to rich buckwheat, to chocolate-y teff, and beyond. 

 

Q: What do these lesser-known grains offer to restaurateurs and chefs, as well as diners?

A: Media buzz begets more media buzz, and whole grains are certainly benefiting from the limelight these days. Ancient grains are definitely trending right now. Ancient grains were named a top food trend (No. 15) in the National Restaurant Association's 2016 culinary forecast. Similarly, Shape magazine named ancient grains as one of the top 13 diet trends for 2016. 

For restaurants, adding more whole grains is a way to capitalize on not only the ancient grains trend, but also the trend toward more plant-centric dishes. Whole grains are needed to provide a hearty foundation for seasonal vegetables and creative dressings, so that the consumer is still delighted and satisfied, even with little to no meat on the plate. For consumers, it's a win-win combination of richer flavors and better nutrition.

Q: What are the most popular grains right now for use in pizza dough, breads or desserts?

A:Gluten-containing grains, like whole wheat, are typically more popular than other whole grains when it comes to pizza crust, because the gluten in wheat lends structure and chewy lightness to the dough. For instance, California Pizza Kitchen has a wheat whole grain crust option available. With a bit more effort, gluten-free pizza crust can be made. Gluten-free Bistro in Coloradouses brown rice flour, buckwheat flour and sorghum flour. 

Breads come in all flavors, textures and colors, but whole wheat remains popular in this domain, too. After all, nearly every sandwich shop has at least one whole wheat option. That said, bakers are experimenting more with heirloom and local varieties of wheat (such as red fife), as well as oat flour and other whole grain flours. Flatbreads and tortillas — with less need to rise — offer more options to incorporate other whole grains beyond wheat. Dunkin Brands' multigrain flatbread, for instance, contains wheat, rye, millet and teff.

Desserts, perhaps more than any other type of food, leave ample room for experimentation. Pastry chefs are becoming enamored with the depth and richness that whole grain flours can add to baked goods, from sweet spelt flours to rich buckwheat, to chocolate-y teff, and beyond. 

For inspiration, just take a look at the addictive 100 percent whole grain chocolate chip cookies at Baker Miller in Chicago; the pear, buckwheat, and almond cake from Violet Cakes in London; the chocolate-covered puffed farro mixed with pecans and currants at State Park Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There is no shortage of creativity when it comes to our favorite part of the meal.

Q: What are the biggest nutritional benefits of these various types of grain, compared with enriched wheat flour and bleached flours? 

A:Compared to enriched wheat, whole wheat has 28 percent more protein, three times the potassium and zinc, four times the fiber and six times the magnesium, as well as many more vitamins and minerals. Magnesium and potassium are both important for regulating blood pressure, so it should come as no surprise that those who eat the most whole grains … have a 14 percent lower risk of stroke than those eating the least, and that increasing whole grains by about three servings per day is linked with a 19 to 22 percent lower risk of heart disease.

Finally, whole grains can also help improve gut bacteria, likely due in part to their fiber. Those eating the most whole grains also tend to have a lower BMI and a smaller waist circumference. Each grain offers its own strengths in different nutrients, so it's impossible to say that any one whole grain is "healthier" than another.

One piece of advice is to take a look at the better-for-you options on your menu. If your grilled chicken, veggie burgers, and other light dishes come with white rice or a white roll, it is a missed opportunity to get whole grain options to the customers that want them the most.

 

Q: Where do you think this is all headed?

A: With the rise in popularity of "bowl meals" and health-focused fast casual concepts like Sweetgreen, we expect more mainstream food service operators to be offering more intact whole grains in the bowl format, such as quinoa salads and farro bowls. 

Additionally, a number of prominent bakers, including Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery, Claire Ptak of the Violet bakery, and James Beard Award-winning author, Alice Medrich are extolling the virtues of alternative grain flours, like teff and buckwheat. As these remain popular at artisan bakeries, we expect that more chain bakeries will be taking note.

Also, now that a number of larger companies are offering sprouted whole grain flours, we expect them to become more available to food service operators. Sprouted whole grain flours are praised for providing the sweet taste of freshly milled flour, but with a better shelf life, and potential health benefits.

Q: What advice do you give restaurateurs interested in delving into alternative grain use on the menu?

A: One piece of advice is to take a look at the better-for-you options on your menu. If your grilled chicken, veggie burgers, and other light dishes come with white rice or a white roll, it is a missed opportunity to get whole grain options to the customers that want them the most.

For other dishes, many chefs find success by romancing the customer with the names of trendy grains, such as quinoa pilaf, Himalayan red rice, or einkorn linguine, rather than saying something like "whole grain wrap." The stories and non-nutritive characteristics continue to influence purchasing, so selling customers on the history of the grain — such as teff, fueling Ethiopian nomads — is a winning strategy.

Q: What's your favorite, personally and why?

A:It's certainly hard to play favorites, as each grain adds its own characteristic flair to a recipe. I love that millet is having a moment now, as I enjoy it in a sweet breakfast bowl just as much as a fluffy base for chili and curries. Freekeh has also been on heavy rotation lately, as it cooks up rather quickly — 25 minutes — and is great for adding a smoky flavor and chewy texture to salads and other dishes.  

Sprouted whole wheat flour has been my go-to flour for breads and baked goods as of late, because of its mild, sweet taste and favorable baking characteristics. But I've also been loving dessert recipes made with teff flour — such as the peanut butter and jelly thumbprint cookies and super fudgey teff brownies in Ann Taylor Pittman's new book, "Everyday Whole Grains."


Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Equipment & Supplies, Food Allergies / Gluten-free, Food & Beverage, Going Green, Health & Nutrition, Hot Products



S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.


Sponsored Links:


Related Content


Latest Content

Get the latest news & insights


NEWS

RESOURCES

TRENDING

FEATURES

Which food news stories changed QSR customer behavior most this year?