If it seems like everywhere you turn, you are hearing more about grains—whole, ancient or sprouted—you are paying attention. You’re also witnessing a major food trend.

According to the “2016 Food & Health Survey” from the International Food Information Council Foundation, 66 percent of consumers consider the whole-grain content of food before making a purchase decision. That makes whole grains, in addition to sugar (66 percent) and calories (66 percent) the top food components consumers think about before buying food.

What’s behind this emphasis on increasing grain consumption? The move to embrace grains is a combination of research on healthy eating, new government dietary guidelines, millennial eating preferences and a broader availability of different types of grains.

The new guidelines

Jim McCarthy, president and CEO, North American Millers Association, Arlington, VA, provided some background on the push for more grains from the governmental perspective: “Earlier this year, the Department of Health and Human Services and USDA released the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The overall theme of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines was a focus on healthy eating patterns across a lifespan, instead of emphasis being focused on specific nutrients. One of the recommendations for the average healthy American adult was to consume six 1-oz. servings of grains daily, with half of those servings coming from whole grains and the remainder from enriched grains. This report was consistent with current science findings on the health benefits of grains and recommendations from many major leading health organizations.”

Mel Mann, director of flavor innovation, Wixon Inc., St. Francis, WI, notes that the nutritional push for grains is well-founded: “Different direct and meta-studies show a relationship between consumption of whole grains and fewer deaths from non-cardiac, non-cancer causes. Type 2 diabetes has been shown to be less likely in patients consuming two to three servings of whole grains per day. Whole grains also aid in weight management by providing a feeling of fullness with fewer calories.”

And consumers are more educated than ever before. “In today’s world of easy access to information, consumers are aware of health benefits of many ingredients,” says Mann. “They think differently about healthy eating and undertake real dietary changes.”

Wisdom of the ancients

As consumers increase their awareness of grains, it is only natural that they also become more familiar with different types of grains. Enter ancient grains.

“Ancient grains and seeds have become sought-after ingredients across the global food and beverage industry,” says Laura-Daisy Jones, director, global packaging insights, Mintel, Chicago. “Although lacking a precise definition, the Whole Grains Council loosely defines ancient grains as ‘grains that are unchanged over the last several hundred years,’ meaning they have not been crossbred or hybridized and are essentially unchanged from their origins.”

Mintel reports that ancient grains have been incorporated into new food and beverage products at a high rate. From 2013–2015, the ancient grains with the biggest growth rate in new products were chia (up 118 percent), quinoa (up 63 percent), teff (up 78 percent) and emmer/farro wheat (up 45 percent).

Why the interest in ancient grains? Mintel cites several factors contributing to their popularity. Ancient grains have a good nutritional profile. In addition to being a good source of fiber, many of the ancient grains are high in mineral content or contain concentrated amounts of antioxidants. Many ancient grains are also gluten-free, fitting into another dietary trend.

Ancient grains additionally provide variety for consumers seeking new flavors and textures in snacks and baked goods. Kim Cornelius, senior scientist, Wixon, points out that ancient grains can go into many different foods, including snack bars.

Oat solutions

While some consumers seek grain diversity for nutrition, flavor and texture, others face medical restrictions. “Consumers are becoming more interested in wholesome grains that are sourced and processed to be completely allergen-free and meet the criteria of healthy source of whole grains,” says Rajen Mehta, Ph.D., senior director of specialty ingredients, Grain Millers, Inc., Eden Prairie, MN. “For example, we have a line of gluten-free oats in different forms. This can allow food processors to meet the cooking and preparation targets and still deliver the target texture.”

Mehta notes that Grain Millers offers products that are a combination of ancient grains and oats, to deliver functionality, like holding time, while providing texture differentiation and the appeal of ancient grains. He has also seen oats replace rice in some applications to provide a more-savory note.

Another option centers on fiber fortification. “We have fine particle size to go into soft baked goods to partially or completely replace soluble fiber,” says Mehta.

Exploring sorghum

Sorghum is an ancient grain which lends itself to a variety of applications due to its versatility. The versatility of sorghum and its gluten-free nutrition makes it a bonus for those seeking to reduce or eliminate gluten in their diets.

Faith Jurek, consumer communications strategist, National Sorghum Producers, Lubbock, TX, cites some of the advantages of sorghum for consumers wanting to follow a gluten-free diet: “A strict gluten-free diet can be very challenging to follow, and there are concerns about the nutritional adequacy of gluten-free options, as they can be low in fiber, iron and B vitamins and high in fat and sugar.” She notes that sorghum is naturally gluten-free and low in fat, and it’s high in fiber, B vitamins and antioxidants.

Sorghum’s versatility makes it a good fit for a surprisingly wide variety of applications. While many consumers may know about sorghum syrup, it can also be eaten as a whole or pearled grain, is available as flour and flakes, and can even be popped. “Whole-grain sorghum can be popped into small, white kernels similar to popcorn,” says Jurek. “Popped sorghum is a great addition to snack bars and granola, as well as a topping on desserts and more.”

Grain super blends

Amazing Grains, Toronto, takes the quest for better health and the consumption of grain personally. Andrew Stewart, managing partner, is diabetic. “I knew from my personal reading about buckwheat and millet, that these two grains can help lower blood sugar,” he says. “That started me thinking about creating a grain blend to help fellow type 2 diabetics. Amazing Grains created a super blend of sprouted ancient grains, super seeds, and a proprietary ingredient with fruit and vegetable powders and vitamins. Our products are gluten-free, allergen-free and BRC-certified.”

Stewart finds that the nutritional profile of his products resonates with customers. “Our customers are looking for what we refer to as ‘measurable nutrition.’ This means beneficial nutrients that show up on the Nutrition Facts panel,” he says, noting that 80 percent of shoppers read labels and make decisions based upon what they read. “They don’t want to see zeros on the Nutrition Facts panel.”

The proprietary vitamin blend from Amazing Grains helps meet some technical challenges with baked products. “Our vitamin blend has a proprietary coating to make it heat stable at temperatures over 475°F, with no degradation of the vitamin or mineral content. And, we will work with product developers adjust the vitamin mix to determine how to make source claims.”

Another benefit of adding a grain/seed mix to products is the visual reinforcement. “Consumers like to see the nutrition they are getting,” says Stewart. “They can see our seeds and grains in products, and when they eat it, they get the crunch.” He finds the visual cues his product brings also fit with consumers wanting food to look less processed and more hand-crafted. “We like to think that our products provide nutrition that looks like it came from the farm and not the pharmacy.”

This visual approach has resonated well with bread consumers of late, with brands adding grain and seed blends to the exterior of products for an appealing look—like an everything bagel approach.

Whether shoppers are motivated by improving general health, reducing or eliminating dietary gluten or looking for variety of texture and flavor, incorporating more grains into baked goods and snack products may prove to be a winning recipe. Expect to see customers look for different types of grains and more variety in their grains. And consumers are likely to be more open to try grains in new applications as they themselves are experimenting at home with grain substitution.