Today’s shoppers gravitate toward foods making “made with whole grain” claims. That’s because eight out of 10 Americans recognize whole grains as being healthful, with more than half (52 percent) of all consumers trying to increase their intake of whole grains, according to the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2019 Food and Health Survey.

While breads, cereals and grain-based snacks are the traditional sources of whole grains, food formulators are exploring innovative ways to incorporate whole grains into unexpected foods. This includes meat, poultry and plant-based proteins. One approach is to choose whole grains when formulating breading systems for filets, nuggets and patties. Another is to make whole grains a side in prepared meals or a protein carrier in bowl meals.

What’s whole grain? All grains start as whole grains. That is, it’s the entire seed or kernel of a plant and contains the bran, germ and endosperm, all protected by an inedible husk. Refining normally removes the bran and the germ, leaving only the endosperm. About 25 percent of a grain’s protein and many important vitamins and minerals are lost during refining.

There are many varied whole grain ingredients, some of which contribute more color, flavor and texture than others. They also add nutrition, including fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. Meat and poultry processors are exploring how they may use whole grains to add value and differentiate in the crowded marketplace. 

Kirkwood, a private-label brand of Aldi Inc., Batavia, Illinois, for example, offers whole grain chicken breast fries. Made with white meat chicken, the breading is a blend of whole wheat flour, yellow corn flour, soy protein and flax meal. A single serving delivers 2 grams of fiber and 9 grams of fat, which includes 450 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids from the flax seed and canola oil.

Whole grain wheat flour is the most economical option. Many formulators will use it as a base, and add ancient grains in varied formats for distinction. 

Ancient grains are defined as grains that have been largely unchanged since the beginning of time. This definition suggests modern varieties of corn, rice and wheat, which are products of years of selective breeding, are not ancient grains, according to The Whole Grain Council. Thus, by definition, ancient grains are not genetically modified, enabling a non-GMO claim. Most ancient grains are also available in organic versions. Further, many ancient grains are gluten free, making them possible substitutes for wheat flours for gluten-free product development.

“Mixed ancient grains contribute a granular appearance and uneven texture to coatings, which brings a little more visual interest and a rustic appearance to the exterior,” says Jason Gronlund, technical sales manager-foodservice, Ardent Mills, Denver. “Using an ancient grain mix of amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff creates a gluten-free option that works well in most breadings and batters and can boost whole grain nutrition and fiber. Grinding whole grains, or grain flakes and crisps, gives you a lot of options in granularity.”

Ancient grains have different flavor profiles and can be selected based on their contribution to the overall sensory experience of the meat and poultry product. Amaranth, for example, has a nutty, slightly earthy and spicy flavor with peppery notes. Buckwheat has an intense roasted, nutty flavor. 

Freekeh has a smoky flavor, while kamut brings a buttery, nutty, sweet taste to proteins. Teff stands out for its sweet, nutty, molasses-like flavor.

Ancient grains add culinary adventure and great-tasting whole grain nutrition to meat and poultry. The grains also provide a back-to-basics approach to food preparation, a wholesomeness embraced by today’s consumers.