KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, U.S. — Ancient grains are expanding beyond grain-based foods. They provide a unique texture to yogurt and may assist companies seeking to capitalize on interest in plant-based milk alternatives. No matter whether they are used in bars, baked foods or beverages, ancient grains like quinoa, millet, buckwheat, spelt and barley all bring formulation concerns and labeling benefits.

The yogurt category, for example, could use an injection of innovation. Data from Information Resources, Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm, showed U.S. multi-outlet sales of yogurt dipping more than 3% to $7.110 billion in 2018. Sales of plant-based yogurt alternatives grew 39% in the 52 weeks ended April 2019, but the category totaled only $230 million, according to the Plant Based Foods Association, Washington, D.C., U.S.

“The food industry and consumers are accustomed to seeing inclusions such as fruit or chocolate in dairy items like yogurt, milks or ice cream, but why not grains or seeds?” said Vanessa Brovelli, senior manager, product development for Bay State Milling Co., Quincy, Massachusetts, U.S. “Grains and seeds are packed with nutritious fiber, proteins and minerals to complement dairy products.

“For example, the active cultures in yogurt can use the prebiotic fiber in grains or seeds as fuel, thereby enhancing their benefits on gut health. Grains could also add unique texture, such as the use of rice in rice pudding. Millet or buckwheat in ancient grain granola may add a unique crunch atop an otherwise soft-textured yogurt or ice cream.”

Grain crisps, either in granola clusters or alone, work as a yogurt topping or mix-in, said Don Trouba, senior director, Go-to-Market for The Annex by Ardent Mills, Denver, Colorado, U.S.

“Many ancient grains, when blended in a high shear mixer, increase the fiber content and add other nutritional benefits,” he said. “We’ve found that the IQF (individually quick frozen) grains blend really well and have no graininess while adding high fiber and nutrients to blended drinks, giving consumers a feeling of fullness for longer.”

The Annex’s culinary team has developed recipes combining IQF. Sustagrain, quinoa and spelt with fruit, agave and skyr, a cultured yogurt-like product with more protein and up to a third less sugar than regular yogurts, he said. During IFT19, the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and expo held in June in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., Ardent Mills served a purple barley smoothie featuring purple barley flakes, blueberries, blackberries and yogurt.

Quinoa, buckwheat, millet, sorghum and spelt all may be used as inclusions to add unique texture to dairy items like yogurt, said Abby Anderson, food ingredients account manager for The Andersons, Inc., Maumee, Ohio, U.S.

“We are using puffing technology to process ancient grains and create a light, palatable, bite-friendly format that also boosts a product’s nutritional profile,” she said.

Ancient grains that are puffed or extruded crisps work well in dairy items like yogurt as an inclusion to be added just before eating, said Alex T. Balafoutis, executive vice-president of Western Foods, Woodland, California, U.S.

“In yogurt applications, it’s more about texture,” he said. “It’s not going to work in the yogurt matrix as the crisps will absorb moisture and become soft.”

Ancient grain flour does not lend itself to the yogurt production process, he said, adding the ancient grain crisps would be more of a textural additive that is added to the yogurt just prior to consumption.

Ancient grains, when added to a yogurt or ice cream application, offer plant-based protein, and many ancient grains are gluten-free, too, said Joni Huffman, senior vice-president of sales and marketing for Healthy Food Ingredients, Fargo, North Dakota, U.S.

“Depending on the form utilized in the application, they are a whole grain and are a good fit for a simple, clean label option, fitting into current consumer demand,” she said.

Alternative milk options

When compared to plant-based yogurt alternatives, plant-based milk alternatives account for a much larger market as the category grew 6% in the 52-week period ended in April to reach $1.9 billion, according to the Plant Based Foods Association.

Particle size would be critical when adding quinoa, buckwheat or roasted garbanzo beans to such beverages, said Bradford Warner, vice-president, marketing, sustainability and customer engagement for Firebird Artisan Mills, a business of Agspring, Leawood, Kansas, U.S.

“These ingredients have a positive environmental impact profile when compared with the ingredients they could replace,” he said. “So, having true comparative data could enable sustainability benefits and claims.”

Many ancient grains, pulses and other plant-based ingredients, including quinoa and chickpea flour, may be used in blended drinks and bars to differentiate the products’ flavor profile while adding protein and essential amino acids, said Angela Icwhan, senior director and technical solutions for The Annex by Ardent Mills.

“Using ancient grains with plant-based milk alternatives supports vegetarian and vegan diets and appeals to consumers who want to seek more plant-based eating for health and environmental reasons,” she said. “Some of the newer milk alternatives are plant-based, and when paired with ancient grains, create a more nutritious end result.

“Grains are generally lacking a couple of essential amino acids, such as lysine and threonine, and by pairing ancient grains with pulses, which lack methionine, a product developer will create a product that has all nine essential amino acids.”

Ancient grain beverages may be made from cereals such as spelt and barley and from pseudo cereals like millet, quinoa and buckwheat, Anderson said.

“Spelt beverages are high in protein and fiber,” she said. “It is more water-soluble than modern forms of wheat and is easier to digest. Millet beverages offer a gluten-free ancient grain alternative to traditional dairy milk that boasts a variety of health benefits. Millet beverages are high in fiber, rich in antioxidants and offer a good source of potassium.”

Other applications

Sports nutrition products represent another opportunity for ancient grain inclusion.

“Buckwheat, teff, millet, sorghum and quinoa all offer bars the opportunity for innovation,” Warner said. “Buckwheat, for example, can deliver both protein and fiber so important to the snack, health or nutrition bar space.”

Firebird Artisan Mills recently introduced four artisan crisp ingredients: Suntava purple corn 50% protein crisp, cocoa buckwheat 60% protein crisp, yellow buckwheat 60% protein crisp and red lentil 60% protein crisp. Besides nutrition bars, the crisps may be used in cereal, clusters, granola and yogurt toppings, baked foods, crackers and salty snacks.

In sports nutrition products, ancient grains in the forms of flour, flake and crisps fit into bar applications, Huffman said. Healthy Food Ingredients offers such ingredients in its IntegriPure brand. The company also offers IntegriPure 30-mesh milled flaxseed that may be added to protein shakes.

Besides yogurt and snack foods, many breakfast cereals are incorporating ancient grains, said Colin Garner, sales and marketing director for Western Foods. Tortilla and pizza manufacturers are looking into ancient grains as well, he said, adding amaranth and quinoa both work well in pizza crust.

Costs should be considered when adding ancient grains to applications as some of them can be quite expensive.

“In some cases the percentage of the ancient grain might be really small, particularly in the case of chia,” Balafoutis said. “Because it’s very expensive, (companies) are not putting a lot of it in their formulations, but it’s on the label.”