Demand for alternative grains rising in popularity
CHICAGO — During the business section of the 2022 IFT First event at the Institute of Food Technologists, a pair of experts examined the current demand for alternative grains.
Ajay Bhaskar, with a background in food science, handles the research and development for product development for Pepisco. His group sources promising new items.
Keith Petrofsky directs research and development for Ardent Mills. Working with both traditional and alternative grains, his team develops applications for ingredients. He invited attendees to meet his team at Ardent Mills booth at this event’s trade show.
Because no formal recognized term applies to alternative grains, Petrofsky offered an explanation he gleaned from an USDA article which defined them as “grains which are not the traditional wheat, corn and rice.”
Petrofsky continued that the alternative category is broad. He recognized other cereal grasses, including sorghum and millet. Some ancient rye, barley, heirloom wheat such as spelt, emmer, einkorn and Khorasan contain gluten. In addition, amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat are non-gluten. Plus, the pulses—chickpeas, lentils and yellow peas—can be used as alternative grains.
Bhaskar pointed out, “These grains have been around a long time.” Asian countries for example have used many of these as a staple product for many years. While not mainstream, several are becoming more popular. Chickpeas, lentils and quinoa especially have been gaining in the last few years.
“Alternative grains are really being driven by consumer demand,” Petrofsky stressed. He further explained consumer behavior, “They are looking at a couple of things mainly related to health, both for personal health and the health of the planet.”
He noted that people are concerned about cardiovascular problems, cancer, diabetes, weight management and improving digestive health. Citing some prevailing statistics, he reported that 35 percent of Americans have diabetes or it’s “on the way.”
“Gluten-free,” Petrofsky said, “Is a big trend for maintaining health.” He also pointed out that only seven percent of the population has celiac disease or are gluten-intolerant.
In Ardent’s own studies, Petrofsky noted that where 71 percent wanted alternative grains, 55 percent decided to purchase gluten-free for “eating healthy.”
Further, 29 percent sought specific ingredients, and 32 percent avoided certain ingredients.
Petrofsky added that more people are beginning to hear about alternative grains. Moreover, as they learn more about their diet’s impact on individual’s health, their choices increase.
More options are available for alternative grains now than 25 years ago. Bhaskar stressed, “Clean labels are important.”
Many of these grains boast nutritional benefits. For example, chickpeas and lentils are high in protein. Quinoa has double the protein as brown rice.
Bhaskar indicated also that the supply chain is good, due to widespread growing in North America. He added that the benefits of alternative grains present a good opportunity to formulate different products.
The wealth of different colors, textures and flavors lend themselves to considerably wide choices of varied products.
Currently most are usually sold as whole grain flours, but much more than packaging as whole, in flakes or powders and more are available. The website of Ardent Mills exemplifies expansive choices.
The product mix varies among companies and regions. Bhaskar reports that lentils for instance are more popular in Canada and Europe.
The flavor is milder than ours, Petrofsky explains.
Tastes vary, too. He notes that roasted chickpeas are less “beany” than chickpea flour.
These grains naturally support diversity. Newness coupled with creativity continues to provide innovative products in the marketplace. Balancing texture and flavor yields higher sales volume.
Emphasis on sustainability of a healthy planet, along with company ethics, ranks higher with young people, Petrofsky said. He noted their beliefs are expressions of their identity. Their food choices reflect the sustainability trend.
Some alternative grains can benefit growers as well. The pulses such as the peas fix nitrogen. Quinoa can use less water.
Less dependency on pesticides has been noted for many, and organic production is common. Organic sales marketing is common.
Regarding alternative grain growers, Petrofsky reports that fewer numbers that are in smaller regional areas are more impacted by the environmental and weather challenges. Maintaining the same composition quality from one year to the next will be less important as these grains become more mainstream.
More growers in more areas will also be of greater benefit to the alternative grains industry and will enhance sustainability.