Selecting Cereal Grasses

June 1, 2012

Get to know your grasses-because grass ingredients are sprouting up everywhere.

The rise of cereal grasses in health food products can be analyzed simply in terms of nutrition and a common desire to consume more plant foods. But a lot of work goes into harvesting, packaging, and marketing a cereal grass product. Whether using wheat grass, alfalfa grass, barley grass, oat grass, or a combination in your next product, there’s a world of factors to consider when working with grass ingredients.

Nutrition

Cereal grasses lay claim to significant amounts of critical nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin K, ALA omega-3s, lutein, zeaxanthin, and chlorophyll, just to name a few. Jeff Wuagneaux, president and CEO of cereal grass supplier RFI Ingredients (Blauvelt, NY), says two major product categories drive the growth of these nutrient-dense ingredients.

First off, detoxification. If you’re unaware of the detoxification message, just know that detox is arguably the most-used word in the green foods arena. And while some question the exact meaning of detox, Wuagneaux notes that plenty of published research supports a potential effect of chlorophyll against carcinogenic toxins.

Wuagneaux says that the second product category for green foods is alkalinity. Alkalizing products can help to balance the body’s pH, commonly offset by acidifying elements of  the American diet,  such as meat, coffee, tea, alcohol, and sugar.

“When your body’s pH level is off even slightly towards what is called acidosis (a pH below 7.44), it can lead to a host of health problems due to loss of enzyme function (enzymes only function at a defined pH) and the harsh corrosive nature of increasing levels of acids,” says Wuagneaux. “Acidification is manifested as pain or burning in the joints, gastrointestinal tract, nerves, urinary tract, and in areas where we sweat most. Health problems are also associated with the loss of minerals used to neutralize the increased acid levels, which can negatively affect the teeth, bones, hair, fingernails, skin, and gums. Acidification also leads to overall fatigue, sensitivity to cold, and a weakened immune system.”

Harvest

Before jumping into the cereal grass market, one must understand the growing process, especially what experts call the “jointing stage” of cereal grasses.

Like any other plant, cereal grass begins as a seed. After the root emerges, grass will rise through the ground until the onset of a “jointing stage,” during which time the plant turns its energy from sprouting the grass to developing heads of grain.

Ron Seibold is cofounder and president of cereal grass supplier and wheat grass specialist Pines International Inc. (Lawrence, KS). Seibold echoes other suppliers when he insists that harvesting cereal grass before the jointing stage is absolutely critical to maintaining peak levels of chlorophyll, protein, minerals, and various other nutrients.

“Research has shown that cereal grass reaches its peak nutrition at the jointing stage,” says Seibold. “If harvest takes place after the jointing stage, the nutritional level of the grass is much less than what we harvest at the jointing stage-but the number of pounds per acre can be two or three times what we harvest.”

In other words, there’s only one reason a cereal grass producer would wait to harvest post-jointing: increased yield. An increase in yield, by weight, comes at the expense of nutrient content, and Seibold says that a telling sign of post-jointing harvest is higher fiber content in the final product.

Beyond depleting cereal grass nutrients, waiting to harvest beyond the jointing stage can give rise to another problem: a common allergen. At least with barley and wheat grass,  harvest beyond the jointing stage and you are flirting with the presence of gluten.

Most of the joints in a particular field on a particular day are at about the same height, but the variations in height become more significant the further one goes past jointing, according to Seibold. When wheat grass is harvested at the proper time, the joints are still at ground level (the cutting will take place a few inches higher) and immature, making them unlikely to contain gluten.

Industrial machines can remove the grass stems, which often carry gluten, but this may only mitigate risk.

Irrigation

There are two ways of going about watering cereal grass: groundwater irrigation or rainfall. Seibold says his company once used groundwater irrigation of its crop, but the increase of chemical-intense agribusiness near farming centers, along with the depletion of local aquifers, led Pines International to switch to irrigation by rainfall and glacial soil only.

Check with your preferred supplier for its chosen method of irrigating cereal grass. For matters of maintaining an organic, low-toxin product, cereal grasses are best supplied from regions with adequate rainfall.

Fermentation

Assuring a high-nutrition, low-toxin cereal grass is enough for most suppliers, but one company explores a potential for even greater nutrition-by fermenting its cereal grasses.

RFI Ingredients, which claims to be the only manufacturer of fermented cereal grasses, says the fermentation process can improve digestibility of the grass, thereby improving bioavailability of its nutrients (e.g., protein), alleviating intestinal malabsorption, and lowering the intestinal pH content.

While the method is unusual for the cereal grass supply industry, the company holds its specialty in high regard, citing the opinions of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which publicly promotes fermentation as a potential strategy for food preservation and nutritional advantages.

Packaging and Presenting

Cereal grasses can be formulated for a slew of different products, from beverages and bars to powders and guacamole (yes, guacamole). As with other active food ingredients, a key to properly packaging such a product is mitigation of oxidation. If you’re marketing a product as a “green food,” it would be wise to make sure product packaging doesn’t allow for oxidation of your chlorophyll (which provides a rich green color). Keeping a product free of light, air, and humidity exposure will help ensure prime nutrition and visual appeal.

Also, stacking your ingredient list with cereal grasses, leafy greens, and other vegetables can offer consumer appeal, too, but no matter how ingredient-dense your product is, its quality is only as high as each individual ingredient. Seibold explains:

“A problem with multi-ingredient products is the risk of one ingredient being contaminated. That risk increases as the number of ingredients increases. Most responsible companies test their final product for pathogens, but other contaminants may not be screened. A multi-ingredient product can be recalled for one ingredient even though all the other ingredients are perfectly safe.”

Protein?

Cereal grasses aren’t usually regarded for protein content, but alfalfa grass has recently emerged as a viable source of plant protein (something Nutritional Outlook will touch upon in an upcoming issue).

For a non-grain grass, alfalfa is naturally rich in protein. Modern machines are able to separate the protein-rich juice from the fibrous green plant without any further modification.

Ingredients by Nature (Montclair, CA) supplies its AlfaPure alfalfa protein at a guaranteed 52% without carriers and without dilutents. Company president Rob Brewster says this vegetable protein is RuBisCO protein-a plant protein most closely resembling animal protein and providing all of the human body’s essential amino acids. It takes 62.5 metric tons of fresh young alfalfa to make one metric ton of the protein-rich juice. For a consumer audience increasingly seeking plant-sourced protein, it’s well worth the work.