Given the recent concerns surrounding safe supply of chia seed coupled with rising consumer demand for minimally processed ingredients, Anne Brown, general manager of Glanbia Nutritionals’ Next Generation Grains processor, says manufacturers can’t underestimate the importance of the kill step when processing increasingly popular raw ingredients like ancient grains and seeds.
“Some of our very big customers are extremely aware of this and are ready to back the technology to not put the public at risk, but there’s still some misunderstanding,” Brown told FoodNavigator-USA. “If you’re not using a kill step in your process, you should not be using a raw grain. In dairy that’s obvious to people, but in grains, it appears to be less so.”
Flax and chia are becoming increasingly coveted by mainstream consumers, due to their powerhouse nutritional profiles. Chia is packed with protein, fiber, calcium, the short-chain omega-3 fatty acid alpha linoleic acid and antioxidants. Flax, also high in protein, fiber and omega-3s, is also linked to lower cholesterol.
But recent pathogen outbreaks in raw chia powder are raising concerns over unsterilized chia in particular, as a recent Salmonella outbreak linked to chia powder sickened more than 50 people across the US and Canada, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Public Health Agency of Canada. Earlier this year, Glanbia opened a food-grade processing facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where it produces flaxseed and chia ingredients, along with other ancient grains using a third party-verified heat treatment system and patented cleaning and milling process.
Part of the challenge, Brown says, is balancing minimal processing and food safety. Unsurprisingly, she says, it starts at the source, ensuring a good supply of raw materials—though this can be particularly difficult with ancient grains.
“It starts with how it’s handled at the farm, field and collection level," she said. "This can be challenging with ancient grains because collection occurs on a small basis so we need reliable sources in South America where our chia comes from and India where our amaranth comes from. If the grains are managed properly there, it’s easier to manage them the right way through supply chain.”
Given that grain processing is often done in the back of farms in buildings not designed for it, Glanbia wanted to build a closed-loop processing facility specifically designed to manage processing in a very controlled way.
Once the high-purity grains (99.9% pure, food-grade raw material) are brought in, Glanbia processes them further with heat and steam. They’re not cooked—rather gently processed, resulting in a five-log reduction in microbe.
“Many processors are doing heat treatments or processing the oil out with heat, but they’re not validated or controlled to the same level as ours. That’s why you’ve seen so many issues,” Brown said.
Grain beverages: a trend we’ll see more of
It’s an exciting time for grain product manufacturers, who are increasingly challenged to create good-tasting, nutritionally sound products, Brown said. “Grains are there not to just deliver starch and sugars, but a holistic approach to nutrition through the solid goodness of fiber, minerals, protein and omega-3s, especially when they’re kept intact through processing.”
While marketers have become decidedly more conservative regarding on-pack nutritional claims (particularly with the FDA’s proposed labeling changes looming), omega-3 claims are widely used for whole flax and chia ingredients, given consumers’ growing awareness of and demand for it in recent years, Brown said. But the seeds also have functional properties—providing viscosity, texture, binding and improved shelf life (up to two years for Glanbia’s ingredients).
Perhaps the most opportunity, Brown says, is in grain-based beverages. Through Glanbia’s milling technology, the ingredients can be dispersible or used in ready-to-mix and ready-to-drink, “using the viscosity and texture these grains give,” she said. “Overall, I think grain beverages are a trend we’re going to see more of. People are looking for new experiences and sources of nutrition from their beverages.”