Once a relatively fringe class of ingredients, ancient grains have come a long way. Whether it’s starring in new cereal launches from packaged-food giants General Mills and Kellogg’s, or shooting up the mass-market sales charts, ingredients like quinoa, chia, and amaranth are quickly becoming household names. The goal for food makers now is to make these grains even more accessible.
“Puffed” products are one emerging strategy. Food and agribusiness company Bunge (White Plains, NY), for instance, has plans to begin offering puffed and flaked ancient grains in the first quarter of 2017, says Mark Stavro, senior director of marketing for Bunge in North America. He adds that he has seen demand rising recently for puffed ancient grains in on-the-go snacks, cereals, and bakery applications in particular.
What’s the big appeal of puffed ancient grains? First and foremost, their light texture makes puffed grains approachable ingredients that require little or no additional preparation work.
“The texture of puffed ancient grains is great for breakfast cereals, as the grains are small and soft—perfect for soaking up cold milk,” says Caroline Caligari, marketing manager for packaged-foods brand Purely Elizabeth. “They are also nutrient-rich and have a mild flavor, so you can incorporate them into a lot of different recipes.”
Purely Elizabeth has been using ancient grains in its products for more than seven years. Its line includes Ancient Grain Granola + Puffs Cereal featuring puffed amaranth and puffed millet. Puffed grains also appear in Purely Elizabeth’s oatmeal and muesli products.
Caligari adds that puffing an ancient grain does not affect the ingredient’s nutritional characteristics; it simply allows for “a texture and presentation that is easier for a consumer to eat as is, right out of the package.”
While most ancient grains can be puffed, sorghum, millet, and quinoa are particularly well-suited to the process, explains Bunge’s Stavro. These three ingredients will all be included in Bunge’s 2017 puffed-grains launches, with the possibility of other ancient grain ingredients being added to the list down the road.
“Sorghum, millet, and quinoa each have a really nice, neutral flavor that makes it easy to season with a variety of flavors,” Stavro says. “Furthermore, across different applications, they provide the crunch that so many consumers are looking for in grain-based snacks and cereals.”
Amaranth may be another strong candidate for puffed applications. Earlier this year, organic food company Happy Family rolled out its first puffed ancient grain snack, Happy Tot Superfoods Dinos, which combines puffed brown rice, quinoa, and amaranth in the form of a puffed dinosaur snack. Available in two flavors—kale, spinach, and cheddar, as well as tomato, basil, and cheddar—the snack and its puffed texture are perfect for small children.
“Puffed ancient grains are crunchy but also light in texture and somewhat airy, so they are easy for babies and young toddlers to eat,” says Anne Laraway, senior vice president of business development at Happy Family. She adds that she has seen puffed ancient grains achieve more success in snacks than in cereals, both in terms of sales growth and total number of products.
And while all grains can be puffed, Laraway says, formulators may want to keep a close eye on the fat, fiber, and starch content of any ancient grain ingredient they want to puff, as these factors can affect both how the grain expands as well as the texture of the finished product.