Purple and puffed: Looking into the crystal ball from the Whole Grains Council conference

By Adi Menayang

- Last updated on GMT

Purely Pinole is introducing purple maize into the hot cereal breakfast category, long dominated by oatmeal.
Purely Pinole is introducing purple maize into the hot cereal breakfast category, long dominated by oatmeal.

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Puffed whole grains are adding crunch to creamy snacks, and ‘quinoa is the next quinoa,’ say trend forecasters at the Whole Grain Council’s Whole Grains Away from Home Conference.

Quinoa’s status in the US changed from obscure South American grain to hipster and foodie favorite to everyday grocery shopper’s staple in the past few years, whole grain experts observed. One of the big questions during the Whole Grains Council’s biannual conference was ‘what is the next quinoa?’

“Well, jeez, quinoa is the next quinoa, it’s not going anywhere,” ​joked Mark DiDomenico, director of client solutions at Datassential​, during his presentation on whole grain trends at the conference. His comment comes from the prevalence of quinoa being used in the foodservice sector based on analysis of menu items in both chain and independent restaurants.

“I don’t know if you necessarily have to worry too much about what’s coming behind it​,​he said. Just like brown rice, the use of quinoa in foodservice continues to grow despite its now mature position as a grain option.

Puffed and popped for a crunchy addition

Same goes for quinoa’s position in the packaged snack segment. Trend forecaster Kara Nielsen, citing the continual rise of snacking in the US, mentioned that whole grains are following legumes in stepping up their prevalence in snack items.

One big trend is puffing and popping. “This is a really fun way to get people excited,” ​she said about puffed and popped whole grains. “Even with things like corn, there’s still something new, there are still things happening.” 

Avoke's avocado smoothie in a cup includes toasted quinoa to add crunch to the creamy snack.

Beyond the dry snack aisle with products like quinoa puffs by I Heart Keenwah​ and the multitude of ready-to-eat popcorn like BoomChickaPop​, two snacks by smaller companies that struck her interest come from the refrigerated dairy aisle. Ohio ice cream company Jeni’s launched a sun-popped corn flavor​ this summer, mixing in popped corn from BjornQorn​ (which magically uses just the sun’s heat to pop), while new brand Avoke introduced toasted quinoa as a crunchy topping for its probiotic avocado ‘smoothie bowls.’

On the horizon, Nielsen observed more use of millet. Shoving puffed rice to the side, puffed millet is an emerging addition to multiple snacks and cereals by independent brands, such as in granola by Purely Elizabeth​, or in bite-sized ‘trail mix’ clusters like TeaSquares​ and Frontier Bites​. Sorghum is also gaining traction—the Sorghum Checkoff marketing director recently told FoodNavigator-USA that the crop’s product lines increased by nearly 40% in 2015​ compared to 2014, and though traditionally used as livestock feed in the US, there is an increasing trend of food application stateside.

The power of purple

Nielsen also mentioned the slow but steady emergence of whole grain-derived anthocyanin (the antioxidant-rich pigment that gives plants like corn, berries, or rice its purple color) in snack food. Purple corn chips are already widespread, but there are “new exciting applications,”​ she said.

An example Nielsen talked about is a study from the National University of Singapore which looked at adding anthocyanin from black rice to bread​, making it purple bread. “It helps change the glycemic index of the bread,” ​she said.

More innovation in this space is using purple maize to make food other than tortilla chips. Purely Pinole is introducing the crop into the breakfast space​, aiming to disrupt a hot cereal category dominated by oatmeal with its purple-colored porridge which has roots in Central Mexico.

“These things are already happening,” ​Nielsen said about the proliferation of more whole grain varieties into American snack foods. “Ways to leverage this…there are lots of places to dig for inspiration. From history to cuisine from around the world.”

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