Great Grains

The amber waves of grain in non-commercial cafeterias have an increasingly exotic flair to them.

Across the country, non-commercial foodservice operators are adding more and different kinds of grains because grains provide needed healthy components to the diet and—let’s not forget—also add texture, fiber and an exotic flair. Chefs in many operations are offering whole grain alternatives to popular items, while others are switching exclusively to whole grain products. Along with this newfound grain consciousness, once eclectic and even obscure grains are making their way into dining rooms everywhere.

Same old, same old? Tired of rice and pasta? Try cooking some quinoa or bulgur. Add herbs and spices, vegetables, tofu, beans and a variety of sauces to make an unending selection of grain dishes.

Kathy Butler, foodservice manager at the University of Northern Texas, in Denton, admits that her new grain ventures have been greeted eagerly or with trepidation, according to the crowd.

“We use quinoa in hot side dishes as an alternate to rice and we also use it at the salad bar with veggies added to it,” she says. “It doesn’t have a big following but it’s another choice; it’s different.”

In Mean Greens, UNT’s vegetarian outlet, Butler also offers multi-grain bread, whole grain sub shop buns, couscous and tabouleh made with bulgur wheat.

Raquel Bulford-Frazier, the foodservice manager at La Rabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago, has undertaken two-year-long initiative to create a 100% healthy dining facility. In the process, the department has added whole grain pasta and brown rice to the menu as well as whole grain pancakes, oat bran chicken fingers, whole grain pizza crust and tabouleh salad.

“Our menu has changed many times based on what our customers want,” Bulford-Frazier said. “We bake our own whole grain cookies. We’ve also changed our vending machines to add healthy options like cereal bars.”

Sometimes a hard sell: Sue Johnson, foodservice site coordinator in the Wayzata, Minn., School District says she has been increasing whole grains over the past three years, with mixed results.

“We went exclusively to brown rice and the kids didn’t make a peep when we changed,” Johnson explains. “They also like the whole grain pizza sticks, but they weren’t too receptive to the whole grain pasta, possibly because of the color.

Wayzata introduced a Grains On The Go program last year to give the kids exposure to grains not normally on their dishes. They offered a different grain each week, such as small samplings of a quinoa cold salad, oatmeal streusel over sweet potatoes and granola yogurt parfaits. However, she acknowledges that some of the more obscure grains are expensive and not practical for her district.

Many operators are tweaking current recipes to incorporate whole grain flour into baked goods. Mari Lowry, the quality control specialist for the St. Paul, Minn., School District touted her clandestine efforts in the kitchen.

“We used whole grain flour in banana bread, apple cinnamon bread and apple cherry bread, then we snuck it into our cookies,” she says. “We have an ultra-grain whole wheat flour that looks like white.”

Lowry has also introduced whole grain cereals, grilled cheeses and a pumpkin bar served as a breakfast bread and snack. The district also conducted a Wild About Grains program that featured a sweet and sour wheatberry salad with five different grains and cranberries, and a spicy corn and barley ensalada with cumin, garlic and peppers.

“We tried a pear quinoa salad with oil, vinegar, sugar and spices,” Lowry added. “It’s easy enough to make at home, but it gets difficult for 45,000 meals.”

Healthy options: Caesar Desiato, executive chef for the Abramson Pediatric Research Center Café at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has started a Farmer’s Market at a food kiosk in the cafeteria to drive home the concept of healthful, organic and locally grown food that he has incorporated into the menu.

“We like to take existing recipes and insert local products,” he said. “We include all-natural, good-for-you type food. They see the farm stand and they see healthy options as soon as they come in.”

For example, Desiato offers a buckwheat option for pancakes, a wild rice with organic garbanzos, a vegetarian soup fortified with buckwheat and a Thai basil salad with flax seeds and lentil.

He is particularly high on flax seeds, the earthy, nutty, whole food that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and fiber, an increasingly popular addition to the diets of many health conscious consumers. Flaxseeds are slightly larger than sesame seeds and have a hard shell that is smooth and shiny. Their color ranges from deep amber to reddish brown depending upon whether the flax is of the golden or brown variety. While whole flax seeds feature a soft crunch, the nutrients in ground seeds are more easily absorbed.

“We put flax seeds on our salad bar as an additional topping,” he says. “We also offer them in pancakes, oatmeal and grits. They are small enough to not alter the profile of the dish. They add texture, a little crunch and they taste good.”

Christina Haller, director of dining services of the Mattawan, Mich., School District, also has overhauled her cafeteria menus in a healthier direction. Discovering different products like the Indian Harvest line, she was able to introduce a wild rice blend and a whole grain five-blend bread in the cafeterias.

“Our bread products are all whole grain white and our pizza crust is whole wheat,” she said. “We have whole grain cereals like Honey Nut Cheerios as well as whole grain Pop Tarts, French toast sticks and English muffins.”

Mattawan recently staged a month-long whole grain challenge, trying to prove that healthy eating can be a fun and beneficial endeavor.

“We geared it toward breakfast,” Haller said. “Every time students bought something with whole grains they would get a stamp on their card. At the end of the month, prizes were issued to customers with the most stamps. Local businesses donated items like $50 gift certificates and a kayak.”

Mattawan has recently installed 10-minute nutrition lessons in the classroom. With grains as the first building block, they will surely build a strong pyramid.

Super Food

All whole grains are very healthy, but the “fruitiest” of them are the best.

Chefs have been revisiting various uses for grains, nature’s age-old health foods. Why this sudden interest? What's so special about grains and about whole grains in particular?

Grains are the seed-bearing fruits of grasses. The husk, also called chaff, is the outermost layer of the grain. When this is removed, the resulting product is sometimes labeled groats or berries. The next layer of a grain is the bran, a protective coating. This layer is rich in fiber. When this layer is removed, the product may be described as pearled or polished. Inside the bran is the endosperm and the germ, the part of the grain that contains the highest amount of nutrients. When grains are refined, the husk, bran, and germ are removed, leaving only the endosperm. Whole grains are not refined and as such offer more nutrients and fiber to the dish.

Whole grains are considered super foods for several reasons. People who eat whole grains regularly are more likely to maintain healthy weight. The fiber moves quickly through the body, which enhances regularity. Whole grains also contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Besides all the nourishment, they may even supply protection from heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.

Whole wheat, corn, brown rice, oats, barley, sorghum, spelt and rye are key ingredients in many common foods. Even popcorn is a whole grain. 

Grains are rated in terms of their fiber, riboflavin, vitamin B-6, zinc, copper, and iron content. Vegetarians get significant amounts of these nutrients from grains. Super food whole grains include amaranth, quinoa, barley, triticale, buckwheat and bulgur. (Technically, amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat are fruits, not grains. But they are generally included with the grain group and represent perhaps the best three of them all.)

Quinoa has excellent reserves of protein and, unlike other grains, contains the amino acid lysine, so the protein is more complete. It offers more iron than other grains and contains high levels of potassium and riboflavin, as well as other B vitamins. It also is a good source of magnesium, zinc, copper, and manganese, and has some folic acid. It has a light, delicate taste, and can be substituted for almost any other grain. The grains are about the same size as millet, but flattened, with a pointed, oval shape. It can be cooked like rice and served hot or cold.

Amaranth’s flavor is mild, sweet, nutty, and malt-like, with a variance in flavor according to the variety being used. Amaranth flour is used in making pastas and baked goods. It must be mixed with other flours for baking yeast breads, because it contains no gluten. It has a sticky texture and becomes gummy when overcooked. It is used in different cultures in various ways. In Mexico it is popped and mixed with a sugar solution to make a confection called alegria. Milled and roasted amaranth seed is used to create a traditional Mexican drink called atole. Peruvians use fermented amaranth seed to make chichi, or beer.

Buckwheat's beneficial effects are due in part to its rich supply of flavonoids, particularly rutin. Flavonoids are phytonutrients that protect against disease by extending the action of vitamin C and acting as antioxidants. Buckwheat also contains almost 86 milligrams of magnesium in a one-cup serving. Magnesium relaxes blood vessels, improving blood flow and nutrient delivery while lowering blood pressure—the perfect combination for a healthy cardiovascular system.

But as beneficial as these grains are, the key to success lies in how you present them, according to Shawn Hoch, the associate director of dining services at Washington State University in Pullman. Hoch has been trying to improve wellness on campus with the introduction of whole grains in an Eating Well program.

“Fiber is a major reason why we eat whole grains,” he said. “But you have to do it in a certain way; you can’t just pile on quinoa. You have to incorporate a veggie component, a color and texture contrast.”