Although foodservice has lagged behind the retail sector in getting healthier food products to customers, that's changing as we head into 2007. As restaurant concepts go after aging baby boomers and families concerned about childhood obesity, they are looking to differentiate the menu with good-for-you items. And manufacturers are obliging.
Whole grains are getting a big push in product and menu development as manufacturers and operators follow the USDA's advice to eat three or more servings a day. ("Whole grains" are replacing "fiber" as a marketing term.) Some foodservice packaging is even showing up with the Whole Grain Stamp that's printed on over 800 retail products, reports Cindy Harrington of the Boston-based Whole Grains Council, the originators of the icon. The graphic stamp indicates the grams of whole grains in a serving.
General Mills was one of the first on board when it reformulated all its BigG cereals to include at least half a serving of whole grains in each bowlful; the cereals are all either a good whole-grain source (8 grams) or an excellent source (16 grams.) ConAgra was another pioneer with its Ultragrain flour—a white, whole-wheat flour that combines the nutrition of whole grains with the color and texture of refined flour. Sandwich breads (such as Sara Lee's Soft & Smooth Whole Grains White Bread), tortillas, coatings and other products based on Ultragrain appeal to mainstream eaters who aren't "health nuts" but want to eat more healthfully. As a follow-up, ConAgra is introducing Healthy Choice All-Purpose Flour with Whole Grains—a blend of Ultragrain and enriched white flour. While Ultragrain was targeted to manufacturers and bakeries, Healthy Choice is being sold directly to operators to bake up healthier muffins, breads and pizza crusts in-house.
Research by USA Rice Federation revealed that whole grain brown rice and rice blends are key products of interest for foodservice operators—almost 45 percent of those surveyed use multi-rice blends. But restaurants that wanted to buy these whole grains in volume often had a hard time sourcing them. Now several companies market these products to foodservice, including Uncle Ben's, SunWest Foods in California and Indian Harvest SpecialtiFoods in Minnesota. New items such as SunWest's Rice & Bean Medley (brown, red and black rice, pearled barley, black-eyed beans and split peas) and Indian Harvest's Whole Grain Five (grano and four rices—wild, brown, Emperor's green and red) make it easy to offer unusual whole-grain sides, salads and soups.
"We're focusing more on whole grains than ever before," says Mike Holleman, corporate chef at Indian Harvest. "Every year, we develop one new blend using a unique grain we haven't tried before." Black barley and red quinoa are two of the newest additions.
Whole grains in action
At Bruegger's, a bakery café with locations in 19 states, whole grains show up in whole-wheat bagels and wraps and the newest item, the whole wheat Softwich. "One-quarter of our lunch business comes from the Softwich and now one-quarter of Softwiches we sell use the whole wheat carrier," says Phillip Smith, director of new products and services. The Softwich, which is bigger and softer than a bagel, also comes in plain, everything, sesame and asiago flavors.
"We came out of the low-carb craze to find that consumers were looking for crusty breads and whole grains," Smith notes. To develop the new Softwich, he and his team discussed how a whole-wheat version should look, feel, perform and bake up. "We didn't want it to be too heavy, so we ended up using 51 percent whole wheat flour and 49 percent white flour," he says. Since the denser flour requires more yeast, it took five iterations to get the bread to rise to Bruegger's specs, but the final product "is consistent with our previous Softwiches and our bakery distributors don't have to go to extremes to make it," Smith adds.
Two whole wheat Softwiches debuted on the menu in September—Western Wheat (a breakfast egg sandwich) and Turkey Apple Cran. Bruegger's displays the Whole Grain Stamp on POP posters and its nutrition guide.
Trans fats update
As some manufacturers strive to add whole grains, others are removing trans fats. It used to be that certain oils and shortenings were hydrogenated to extend shelf life and stability during high-temperature frying and other cooking. But hydrogenation also creates those evil trans-fats that raise LDL (bad) cholesterol.
In the past year, Asoyia introduced a zero-trans-fat, GMO-free, 1 percent linolenic acid soybean oil that lasts 25 percent longer in frying applications. Conventional soybean oil is 7 percent linolenic acid— a fatty acid that turns oil rancid if not hydrogenated. But Asoyia's ultra-low linolenic variety doesn't require hydrogenation and produces better results. The farmer-owned company is now experimenting with other soybean varieties and new formulations to bring to market and expects to have a trans-fat-free blended oil ready for foodservice in 2007. "We're working with several donut manufacturers to create a blend that offers top performance and flavor in frying," reports Richard Lineback, VP of sales and marketing.
Processors are using Asoyia and other trans-fat free oils in an ever-expanding group of products, including cheese sauces, non-dairy creamers and desserts. Among the latest is Galaxy Desserts of Richmond, California, a supplier of single-serve desserts. Jean-Yves Charon, Galaxy's founder and pastry chef was an early adopter. "The low linolenic acid in the oil produces cakes and other desserts with no oily aftertaste," he points out.
Starting with its zero-trans-fat Infinity Fries, Simplot has been a leader in zapping trans fats from its products. New on the roster are Tater Gems and Tiny Triangles—two kid-friendly crunchy potato products—and RoastWorks Seasoned Wedges. The latter is a bake-able potato wedge with a zesty seasoning of salt, pepper, onion and garlic.