Designing new food products

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Today’s snack food aisle in the grocery store contains a lot more products than when I was a kid. Back then, we mainly had potato chips and saltines, but not much more. Now there’s a multitude of choices designed to help you satisfy your cravings for something crunchy.

It’s fair to say most of us don’t spend a lot of our time cooking from scratch. “Processed foods” – everything from snacks to boxed dinners – make up a great deal of what most Americans eat. Indeed, the majority of what most of us eat is processed to one degree or another.

Some highly processed foods are not so healthy, especially the ones made with refined flours and ingredients. Some experts think there’s a link between specific groups of processed foods and the obesity epidemic. Surveys in the U.S. and Great Britain show that most people consume less than one serving per day of whole-grain cereals. That’s a shame because research has shown that three servings of whole grains a day are better for us.

In part because of the possible link between processed foods made with refined ingredients and the obesity epidemic, the question arises: Can we make convenient foods that are both tasty and good for us? To put it another way, how can we increase the whole-grain content of processed foods in a way that won’t sacrifice taste and texture?

Into this fray has walked a new variety of wheat, called “waxy wheat.” Waxy wheat was first bred around the turn of the 21st century.

Whole grain waxy wheat has unique processing properties. Basically, it forms a paste at a significantly lower temperature than does regular wheat, and it swells with more water than do standard varieties of wheat.

“Waxy wheat holds real potential for improving processed foods,” said Dr. Girish Ganjyal, a faculty member in the School of Food Science at Washington State University.

Ganjyal recently taught me several things about the food we eat. One is that snack foods contribute a whopping 25 percent of the calories most adult Americans take in. Obviously, that means snack foods are important to human health in the U.S.

In recent years there has been a serious effort by the food industry to increase the fiber and protein content of processed foods. Part of that effort revolves around a wide range of foods made with what’s termed “extrusion” processing.

Extrusion processing involves passing food ingredients through a barrel with an opening at the end known as a die. The food ingredients are cooked as they pass through the extruder and exit through the die that gives shape to the food. Extrusion processing is crucial to everything from elbow macaroni and tortilla chips to Cheetos and Fruit Loops, as well as things like snack bars and military field rations.

“Extrusion processing is one of the mainstays of the food industry,” said Ganjyal.

But as you incorporate more fiber and protein into the extruded food, you change its taste and texture. In general, U.S. consumers like “light” foods that crunch and then dissolve in the mouth. The good news is that waxy wheat, when processed through extruders, cooks at low energy inputs and produces light textured products.

Ganjyal is researching how using waxy wheat may make it possible to side-step the problem of whole-grain extruded foods being “darker” than many people like. In other words, he wants to keep the melt-in-your-mouth texture that consumers like, even while incorporating more nutrition into the extruded foods.

Recently Ganjyal applied for funding from the federal government to pursue more research in this area. He proposes working with a miller to grind the waxy wheat in very specific ways. The wheat flour will then be further processed and extruded. The taste of the resulting products will be evaluated by panels of testers, folks like you and me. The goal is to make more whole wheat foods that people will thoroughly enjoy even while they get whole-grain nutrition.

Remember Ganjyal the next time you choose some snack foods at the grocery store. There’s a lot of research work that goes into our daily vittles.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.