By Kelly Toups
Grains used to function as the flavourless blank slate in recipes – a supporting actor, at best. But today, chefs are bringing this understudy into the spotlight, leveraging whole grains as a delightful source of flavours and textures in their own right.
“America’s in a bread renaissance that’s whole-grain focused,” explained Greg Wade, one of Chicago’s best-loved bakers, at Whole Grains Away from Home, a September 2016 conference hosted by the Oldways Whole Grains Council. So enamoured are chefs with the flavour of freshly milled, heirloom varieties of whole wheat, that whole grain flour has become the new standard in artisan baking.
Chef Dan Barber, featured in the popular Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table, began serving what he calls “200-per-cent whole-wheat bread” at his New York restaurants, which contains twice the amount of bran. A bold move away from the stealth health approach previously favoured by many public health advocates, Barber hopes to create a moment of awakening among diners that the bran is a flavour asset.
While bread baking is a natural way to incorporate more whole grains, they are also showing up in more unexpected roles, most notably, in light, springy pasta. The term “whole grain pasta” may not be a typical rallying cry, but perhaps one of the best-kept new secrets of the culinary world is that’s precisely what chefs are using. The New York Times recently featured chef Kevin Adev, of Faro, an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. Chef Adev has taken to using freshly milled rye flour in his pasta, and he is one of many chefs across North America contending that the complexity of the whole grain flour is necessary to stand up to complex sauces.
Grain bowls offer mass appeal
Outside of luxe cafes and white tablecloth dining rooms, whole grains are also making a play on more casual menus. The multigrain bun is one of five bread options at Hero Certified Burgers, one of the top grossing Canadian fast casual chains. Even Tim Hortons offers three flavors of oatmeal (maple, mixed berries, and plain) and a 12-grain bagel.
However, the real poster child for the surge of whole grains in foodservice is none other than the ubiquitous grain bowl. Throughout North America, grain bowls and grain salads have been gaining rapid popularity among consumers, particularly at fast casual restaurants.
Mucho Burrito, one of the fastest growing fast casual restaurants in Canada, offers diners a choice of Mexican brown rice with their burrito bowls. Mandy’s, a trendy salad chain in Montreal, tops many of their gourmet salads with quinoa and brown rice, for equal parts style and sustenance. And U.S. imports like Panera Bread and Starbucks also offer a multitude of whole grain options, from oatmeal bowls with fruit and nut toppings, to whole grain pastries, to sandwiches on whole grain bread.
Nutritionists and health researchers have been touting the benefits of whole grains for years, but once these foods were recast into complex breads, springy pastas, and trendy grain bowls, consumers did a double take. Like a varsity athlete falling for the quiet honour student, consumers realized that maybe the “good-for-you” food was in fact better tasting all along.
Survey data support this trend. In August 2015, the Oldways Whole Grains Council conducted a census-representative survey of 1,500 adults in the U.S., to better understand whole grain-related eating behaviors and attitudes. They found that health is still a strong motivator for choosing whole grains for 86 per cenr of respondents, but that close to half (40 per cent), cited taste as a motivator for choosing whole grains. In fact, this is more than the percentage that cited taste as a barrier (37 per cent).
Boost sales and customer loyalty
If restaurants want to earn respect from health-conscious consumers, offering only refined or enriched grain products puts them at risk for social media shaming. According to Canadian Food Business, “It is important to understand that forward-thinking consumers are also food-educated. The efficacy of ingredients with functional benefits will come under scrutiny – companies must ensure they have completed their homework to uphold their position on health and wellness.”
The results can be quite fruitful for an infamously low-margin business. After Boston-based, healthy fast food chain b.good added a selection of kale and grain bowls to the menu in late 2013, chef and co-founder Tony Rosenfeld reported at Whole Grains Away from Home that sales increased by 25 per cent.
Of course, in restaurant kitchens, time is a precious commodity often in short supply. For this reason, rice cookers were praised by many of the Whole Grains Away from Home speakers for their dependability not only with brown rice, but also with the more leisurely-cooking ancient grains like barley, sorghum, and spelt. In fact, the Culinary Institute of America’s Dean of Culinary Arts, chef Brendan Walsh, declared that he’d like to see more culinary students comfortable with this underutilized technology.
In addition to adding new whole grain menu items, even the most iconic recipes can gradually be reformulated to incorporate more whole grains. A great example of this shift comes from the retail foods industry. In April 2015, Kraft announced that they were planning changes to the Kraft Mac & Cheese recipe (such as removing artificial colors). But once they finalized the recipe, they decided to launch it quietly (with no front-of-pack signage or advertisements) to avoid potential backlash. After selling it for about three months without causing a stir, Kraft moved forward with their “World’s Largest Blind Taste Test” ad campaign, and received high praise by both the press and consumers alike.
Although health has moved into the mainstream, certain populations still might not see healthier foods like whole grains as tasty. Making small tweaks without saying so can be more fruitful in certain circumstances, depending on your audience. Consumers are peeling back layers all the time (Yelp, social media, word of mouth) so even if restaurants don’t advertise their superior ingredients, consumers will inevitably find out. When people learn that your dishes are made with high-quality ingredients, it’s going to help strengthen customer loyalty and boost new customer acquisition.
Whole grains and the future of foodservice
If there was one theme that came up more than any other at Whole Grains Away from Home, it’s that a plate with less meat and more vegetables and whole grains is more sustainable and more cost eﬀective, and that ﬂavorful, trendy whole grains take these meatless and less-meat dishes to a more satiating, mouthwatering level. Nearly every single speaker highlighted the role that whole grains play in this movement, emphasizing that sustainable diets featuring whole grains are becoming the new standard in foodservice.
For at least the 4th year in a row, ancient grains were recognized as a top food trend by the National Restaurant Association in the U.S. But restaurateurs are also paying closer attention to the specific varieties of grains they are using, understanding that different whole grains have different strengths. At the Oldways Whole Grain Council’s 2016 conference, Dr. Steve Jones, a wheat breeder who runs The Bread Lab at Washington State University, explained that, “we started to appreciate that there could be a ﬂavour, a terroir, to wheat.” Dr. Jones has used this concept — matching specific varieties of wheat to specific purposes — with larger institutions as well, such as Chipotle.
The movement to better align the food system towards health and wellness also remains top of mind. According to Canadian Food Business, “People are craving more exciting food that makes them feel good about themselves, but are also considering nutritional value and quality when making their food choices.”
However, consumers aren’t just playing the numbers game. If diners were just looking to check off their nutrition requirements, then perhaps we could serve a multivitamin with the bill and call it a day. But foodservice is not that simple. Consumers also want to feel good about what they’re eating – that it is close to nature and free of unnecessary additives. Refined grains, which are stripped of their nutritious bran and germ, could hardly pass muster under this context. And frankly, our tastebuds have their sights set on greener (and grainier!) pastures anyway.
About the author:
Kelly Toups, MLA, RD, LDN is the staff dietitian at Oldways, and serves as Director of the Oldways Whole Grains Council. Through her training in dietetics, gastronomy, and food policy, Kelly communicates the science-backed health benefits of whole grains and traditional diets to consumers, health professionals, and industry stakeholders. To learn more, visit oldwayspt.org or wholegrainscouncil.org or follow us @OldwaysPT.