Specialty grains are innovating to fit in-demand products like beverages

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 23 No. 6
Volume 23
Issue 6

Specialty grains, such as ancient and heirloom grains, attract consumers and offer formulation advantages to food manufacturers.

As consumers demand clean-label products, innovative native starches make it easier for manufacturers not to sacrifice quality.

Photo © AdobeStock.com/tanya_pogorelova

Grains have long been a staple of the human diet, and in more recent years, as consumers push for a healthier lifestyle, many are choosing whole grains over refined grains. In a food and health survey1 of 1,011 Americans between the ages of 18 and 80, conducted by the International Food Information Council in 2020, nearly 80% perceived whole grains as healthy compared to refined grains, which were perceived as healthy by less than 45% of respondents. Fifty percent of respondents said they were actively trying to consume more whole grains.

The Draw of Specialty Grains

Consumers are also showing a great deal of interest in specialty grains, such as ancient and heirloom grains, which fall under the umbrella of whole grains. These grains can offer high fiber content, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants. Ancient grains such as quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, teff, and millet are also gluten-free, another huge draw for consumers with dietary restrictions and those that perceive gluten-free products as healthier. The positive environmental impacts of specialty grains can also influence purchasing decisions.

“People are seeking highly individualized approaches to their diets and are making food choices based on personal or planetary health, or both,” explains Don Trouba, senior director, Go-to Market at Ardent Mills (Denver, CO).

The most popular specialty grain on the market, quinoa, is grown in at high altitudes in the Andes Mountains, reducing the risk of pests and weeds to create a reliable crop. Small hold farms, which make up more than 70% of the current quinoa supply, also do not rely on fertilizers, instead using traditional methods that preserve the health of soil. Additionally, for every 1,000 acres of quinoa, 366 million gallons of water are saved. With the current monoculture of crops, rotating crops with whole grains can preserve soil health by reducing erosion and providing soil with nutrients.

For Formulators

Manufacturers of finished products can capture these health and environmentally conscious consumers by using specialty grains to replace ingredients that are sometimes considered less than desirable. For example, FutureCeuticals (Momence, IL) carries a line of beverage-ready grains.

“[Our Beverage-Ready Grains] make it possible for formulators to improve the taste and texture of their protein sources and replace gums, fats, and oils with clean-label hydrocolloids,” explains Ryan Wories, director of marketing for FutureCeuticals.

The line consists of Nutrim, which delivers heart health and prebiotic benefits; QuinoaTrim, which delivers protein and essential amino acids; AncientTrim, which delivers nutrients from five whole grains; and ModCarb, which blends six organic grains—oats, amaranth, buckwheat, chia, millet, and quinoa—and promotes natural energy. The company says these ingredients offer ideal taste and texture to consumers in beverage and bar applications that are clean-label and on-trend. The greatest potential for ancient grains is in the plant-based food and protein categories.

“A key driver in the ancient grains market is the plant protein–centric trend driven by the popularity of vegetarian, vegan, and flexitarian diets,” says Wories. “Grains can even be paired with plant-based sources of protein to form nutritionally ‘complete’ proteins. As enthusiasm grows for exotic plant-based proteins...formulation concerns regarding taste, texture, and flavor emerge.”

Plant-based protein sources tend to be gritty, creating an unpleasant mouthfeel, which can be particularly jarring when consuming a beverage. The beverage-ready grains lend finished products a smooth, creamy mouthfeel, which is paramount as brands compete in the growing functional beverage space. The same is true of the bars category, which is saturated with products. Specialty grains might help not only solve challenges in formulation but help differentiate products on the shelf.

Ardent Mills offers ingredients such as quinoa crisps in its portfolio of quinoa solutions, which also includes whole-grain flour, flakes, multigrain blends and mixes, rice blends, and whole seeds. “Our quinoa crisps can help add nutritional value to formulations through the protein and fiber they provide,” says Trouba. “The light texture and the small diameter of quinoa crisps make them easy to incorporate in a cluster or use as a topping, for example.”

Crisps are a desirable textural component that can top bars and other baked preparations while again offering added value of the specialty grain and a cleaner label.


  1. International Food Information Council. “2020 Food & Health Survey.” Published June 10, 2020. Accessed here.
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