There are several growing trends that have joined the American culinary landscape in recent years, including the locavore movement, ethical eating, and food purity that ranges from organic ingredients to those free of GMOs, pesticides, and gluten.
In fact, they are all part of an even larger megatrend called “enlightened eating,” says Dave Sheluga, director of consumer insights for Ardent Mills, a Denver-based flour-milling and ingredient company that is hoping to take whole grains mainstream.
“This is a trend coming in from the coasts,” he says. The trend is typically being led by higher-educated, high-income consumers, with many of the categories seeing double-digit growth, he adds. “Will it get here to the heartland? Yes, but it will take time.”
Ardent Mills and many other companies that are closely tied to this megatrend are displaying their products and processes at this year’s National Restaurant Show in Chicago, which runs through Tuesday.
With one of the more unique booths at this year’s show—a former NASCAR trailer turned into a Mobile Innovation Center with a fully functional bakery, culinary kitchen, and other features—Ardent Mills is demonstrating what’s next in grain innovation. The company is a joint venture combining the North American flour milling businesses of big food companies Cargill and ConAgra Foods, which each own 44 percent of the business, along with farm cooperative CHS, which holds a 12 percent stake. The venture has 40 mills across North America, three mixing facilities, and a small specialty bakery in Portland, Oregon.
While traditional white flour is still a big part of Ardent’s business, there has been more focus on increasing consumers’ intake of whole grains that offer more health benefits.
“The whole grain products really complement the white flour we do, and we do a lot of blends, where you can mix the whole wheat flour with the white flour,” says company chief executive Dan Dye.
One of Ardent Mills' products, Ultragrain, is a 100 percent whole-wheat flour that has the appearance and texture of traditional white flour. The company also has products like ultra-high fiber barley and ancient grains.
The Mobile Innovation Center is part of an effort to “mainstream whole grain.” It allows chefs, bakers, and restaurant operators to see how different types of flour, made from various grains, will perform in a regular kitchen or bakery.
“Chefs want to know, ‘Can I make it taste good?’ and ‘Will this bake in a consistent predicable manner?’ We can show them that,” Dye says.
There are hundreds of companies at the Show that fit into that enlightened eating category. There’s even a specific area, dubbed “Alternative Bitestyle,” that showcases products for special dietary needs.
Many of this year’s Food and Beverage Award winners were honored for innovations in what would be considered enlightened eating, and that includes Cheatin’ Wheat pancake mix and Dawn Food Products’ cookies and muffins, all gluten-free.