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Milling healthier, innovative flours from ancient grains
Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Laura-Daisy Jones
• The use of alternative crops has been encouraged by the dominance of wheat, consumers’ desire for greater variety in their diets, and the growth of the gluten-free market

• Expansion of the range of ‘non-wheat’ flours, is being driven by the demand for wheat alternatives and for health reasons

• Going against the grain, grain free fours, using nuts, fruits and vegetables are appearing on the flour scene

“Although wheat flour is still by far the most dominant type of flour, the range of ‘non-wheat’ grain and seed flours continues to expand”

The growth of wheat flour alternatives
With wheat being one of the most common cereal crops, it is the grain of choice for a lot of staple foods including bread, pasta, breakfast cereals and biscuits. Criticisms that wheat has become far too dominant in our diet as the main source of wholegrain, is encouraging the use of other grains. Alternative crops to wheat have also become more popular as consumers seek apparently healthier food items and more variety in their diet. This has fuelled the rediscovery of ancient grains. Ancient grains offer an alternative to wheat but also come bundled with a range of functional and nutritional components that provide new, interesting flavours and textures.

The interest in ancient grains has spread across food and drink categories, for example a third of UK consumers would like to see a wider variety of ‘heritage’ grains according to Pasta, Rice & Noodles – UK, March 2013. While breakfast cereals have also turned to ancient grains to channel their health benefits in efforts to revamp their image and dispel criticisms of products as being highly processed, sugar-laden breakfast options. Indeed more than two in five US consumers, 41%, have eaten ancient grain-based cereals according to Hot and Cold Cereals – US, August 2014. Some of the ancient grains that have made a name for themselves include chia, amaranth and quinoa. (See Figure 1)

The rise of alternative, wheat-free crops is also being driving by an increased awareness of coeliac disease and gluten intolerance. In fact in the past five years across all food and drink launches globally, the use of gluten-free claims rose by 134%, although part of this growth can be attributed to a legislative requirement in Brazil to disclose gluten status on all products. The positive health connotations linked to gluten-free continues to encourage the use of gluten-free products among individuals, with or without an intolerance or sensitivity to gluten. (See Figure 2)

More to flour than stock-standard wheat flour
Although wheat flour is still by far the most dominant type of flour, the range of ‘non-wheat’ grain and seed flours continues to expand. Analysing the growth of grain flours in launches of baking ingredients and mixes over the past three years globally shows most growth has come from some of the popular ancient grains: sorghum, barley and buckwheat. (See Figure 3)

Non-wheat grain flours

Doves Farm Gluten Free Buckwheat Flour (UK)

Gluten-free buckwheat flour is milled from whole buckwheat.
Wholeberry Folk Banana Split-Home-Style Cupcake Mix (Australia)

Cupcake mix is made from spelt flour, which has a greater ‘gluten solubility than wheat and is gentler on digestion’.

Maninis Gluten Free Multi-Purpose Flour Mix (USA)

A high fibre flour mix is made with flour blend of ancient grains, millet, teff, sorghum and amaranth. Along with being gluten-free it is made with organic ingredients and holds a GMO-free claim.

Gentle Ginger Cake Mix (Ireland)

This cake mix is made with stoneground spelt flour which includes the whole kernel of the grain, with the added benefits of oats and omega rich seeds. It claims to not only taste great but to be a ‘powerhouse of health promoting nutrition’.

Sorghum has long been an important cereal crop, largely due to its natural drought tolerance and versatility providing food, feed for livestock and fuel. However, its recent activity can be attributed to its gluten-free
 status. Similarly, buckwheat flour once considered a peasant food has re-emerged as a supergrain with its gluten-free status a major attraction. Buckwheat is also very high in protein, indeed it is one of the best known plant sources of protein, providing a complete protein with all essential amino acids.

Barley is often overlooked, not really classed as a staple grain but then it isn’t often talked about when ancient grains or supergrains are discussed. However, barley flour along with barley malt flour are being used more in baking ingredients and mixes, climbing the ranks in part due to their rich nutrition and flavour. Barley flour has a rich, nutty taste and creates a different texture compared to all-purpose flour in baked goods, while malt barley flour speeds up the fermentation process. Barley, along with oats, also offer superior nutrition, being both high in dietary fibre (through indigestible beta-glucans which are known to improve cardiovascular health and help manage blood sugars), and insoluble fibre, which helps keep you full and maintains a healthy digestive tract.

Tips for using alternative flours
Consumers express interest in ‘healthy’ flours both in and out of the home. According to Healthy Dining Trends – US, July 2014, 21% of US restaurant diners are interested in ordering healthy desserts, that use healthy alternative flours, ancient grains, are gluten-free or have alternative sugars. Meanwhile among home bakers, greater innovation around alternative flours should be encouraged by the fact a quarter of UK home bakers can’t always find the unusual ingredients, such as specific types of flours they need in supermarkets according to Home Baking – UK, July 2014. However, only 13% of UK bakers agree that wheat-free baked goods are healthier than baked goods made with wheat according to Home Baking – UK, July 2014. Although this rises to a fifth of under-25’s, there is scope for brands using alternative flours to focus more on the better-for-you nutrients and improved functional properties to encourage greater use.

One of the challenges of replacing wheat flour with alternative flours is that they do not behave in the same way and cannot simply be substituted for standard flour in all recipes. This can restrict bakers to recipes specially formulated for these ingredients. Often alternative flours work better as part of a combination and may require additional tweaks to recipes. More detail on how to use unfamiliar types of flour in home baking would give consumers’ the confidence to experiment more. Likewise, the interest in alternative flours, and better-for-you varieties opens up development opportunities of ‘half and half’ flours, blending white flour with another grain, which are healthier than standard wheat flour but can be used in a similar manner.

The analyst's view
• The idea that our diets are too reliant on wheat will continue to encourage the development and use of non-wheat flours.

• Consumers will continue to seek ancient grains due to their positive health connotations.

• Alternative wheat flours should promote their functional properties to appeal to health conscious consumers.

• Greater efforts on how to use alternative flours compared to conventional wheat flour and the development of ‘half and half’ blends will give consumers’ confidence to experiment with novel flours.

(The author is global food science analyst at Mintel)
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