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Ancient grains flavor up gluten-free formulations

A quick snapshot of the history and types of ancient-grain ingredients options for making gluten-free breads, including amaranth, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff.

Suppliers have done a credible job offering gluten-free alternatives in this $1.6 billion category based on corn, potatoes, peas and rice.

As manufacturers know, all aspects of gluten-free breads are different compared to traditional counterparts. Storage and handling are important for optimal flavor and shelf life. Mixing requirements are different. Because there is no gluten, there is usually a need for added or increased structural ingredients such as egg whites, gums and shelf life extenders.

"You have to balance flour, water and structural ingredients to get a good crumb structure, a good loaf structure that doesn't cave in, that holds up, and also takes into account the moisture and volume of the loaf," said Elizabeth Arndt, director of R&D at ConAgra Mills.

A particularly good strategy for the trend-setting set is to develop products based on so-called "ancient grains." These grains, though known for millennia, fell by the historical wayside not because their nutrition was lacking but more so because the grains that became modern staples offered greater productivity, more breeding flexibility and other advantages.

Ancient grains tend to not be refined so are used primarily as whole grains – which counts as a double bonus because consumers eat only about half the amount of fiber they should.

How grains absorb water is important for baked goods and flavor – and there are major differences between individual ancient grains. "Millet has a low hydration capacity, whereas amaranth is quite strong," said Arndt. "Blends can balance absorption – as well as cost of ingredients."

Ancient grains also tend to be lower in fiber content, as well as fat content, compared to traditional American whole-grain staples of wheat, barley and oats.

Depending on nutritional and labeling targets, not to mention cost, ancient grains' recommended use levels are between about 25 percent and 50 percent.

Below is a quick snapshot of your ancient-grain ingredients options, as described by Arndt.

Inexpensive pseu-docereal grain is high in protein and was a staple of the Aztec culture. Its small, round seed brings out an interesting flavor with fresh corn husk notes. It has a higher water-binding capacity than wheat starch, and is good for cereals, breads, muffins, pancakes and crackers.

The sixth most used grain in the world has a fairly soft seed that can be eaten without being cooked. In the U.S., its most popular use might well be for birdseed, though it's also used in several human foods like cereals and breads. It's notable for its B vitamin content.

Most expensive, highest in protein, best antioxidant with an ORAC score of 4,800 – similar to strawberries. Quinoa is increasingly found in fine dining establishments as a side dish. This makes for a great introduction to the socio-economic class, which also tends to shop in natural-foods stores. Baked goods, pasta, soups and breadings are all starting to incorporate quinoa. It has a unique taste with corn and legume flavor notes.

Cheapest of the ancient grains, this rounded seed is also called milo. It makes small, popped kernels with corn notes.

This tiny seed is 1/150th the size of wheat, with a light, molasses flavor note. Used for baked goods, porridge and polenta. It has a comparatively high mineral content, including calcium, magnesium, manganese, and the B vitamins thiamin and folate.

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