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Engineering, Extruding, and Elevating Whole-Grain Based Foods

Posted by Ali Schultheis | August 22, 2023
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Over the last three months, we have discussed the groundbreaking scope of the Soil to Society grant and ongoing work by our Soils and Cropping Systems and Plant Breeding Teams. But what is the point of breeding better grain and legume varieties if farmers have nowhere to sell their harvest? Crops must be marketable in order for farmers to integrate these varieties into their current rotations. For this reason, our Food Science Team is working to develop a diverse and innovative suite of flavorful, affordable, and nutritious food products accessible to consumers from all income levels.

The Goals

To identify potential food products, the Food Science Team began characterizing the functionality traits of top-performing varieties and breeding lines of each target crop- wheat, barley, buckwheat, quinoa, lentils, and peas. Throughout this process, both whole seeds and whole seed flours will be functionally characterized to determine their unique attributes, including:

  • flour swelling power
  • water and oil absorption capacities
  • foaming capacity
  • foam stability
  • emulsification capacity
  • emulsion stability
  • thermal properties
  • pasting properties

These characteristics help determine the best food applications for the varieties. Data collected from this characterization process will then be analyzed to determine which varieties will be further tested in food products.

The Science Behind Food Products

There are three primary food categories that our Food Science Team is working to produce. The first is whole-grain-based ready-to-eat (RTE) meals for all income levels and community-based interventions. Like MREs, RTE meals feature pre-packaged individual servings, complete meals, or specially prepared pre-cooked whole grains in separate pouches or trays. These meals are prepared and processed using advanced thermal processing technologies that ensure microbial safety and extend shelf-life.

People standing by a table eating
Meeting participants tasting lentil hummus. Photo: Dr. Juming Tang’s Food Engineering Lab

The team food engineers have developed two different advanced thermal processing technologies:  microwave assisted thermal sterilization (MATS) and microwave assisted pasteurized system (MAPS). MATS produces shelf-stable RTE products while MAPS extends the shelf-life of chilled meals. These technologies have been shown to create products with more desirable sensory traits and less salt than their conventionally processed counterparts, and ready for adoption by food companies. At our grant annual meeting in July 2023, project personnel got to try lentil hummus processed with both MATS and MAPS and compare the results, many expressing that the processed hummus tastes just as good if not better than fresh and store-bought hummus.

Food product going through machinery
Extrusion allows food scientists to process food products with a variety of whole-grains to meet nutritional goals. Photo: WSU Extrusion Processing Laboratory, Food Processing Extension and Research Program

The Food Science Team is also working to develop healthy whole grain-based extrusion products using nutritionally dense varieties identified by other project researchers. Extrusion is “a very common processing technology used in a food industry to produce direct expanded snack foods, cereals, and pet foods, among other products.” They are typically made by “utilizing raw material, often flour, and subjecting it to high temperatures while also creating a high shear and high-pressure environment using rotating screws.”

Extrusion equipment is highly diverse, allowing food scientists to make various types of products, but the most common are puffed snack foods- think cheesy corn puffs. Developing snacks with combinations of different types and varieties of whole grains can reach desired nutritional characteristics, including different protein and fiber contents. This information will ultimately be disseminated to the food industry through various channels, including publications and extension workshops. An extrusion processing workshop is happening now, taking place August 8th, 9th, and 10th, 2023.

People with lab coats standing by machinery
Visit the extrusion workshop for more information on the extrusion process. Photo: WSU Extrusion Processing Laboratory, Food Processing Extension and Research Program

For the third food product category, WSU Bread Lab is working with the Bread Lab Collective on the Approachable Loaf— “an affordable, approachable, accessible whole wheat sandwich loaf.” The Bread Lab Collective is a group of stakeholder partners across seven countries and 27 states that range in scale and include King Arthur, the oldest flour company in the US, Mediterra Bakery in Pittsburg, which sells 4 million loaves per year, and Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, MT, where the loaf is used to teach students firsthand community involvement. The Approachable Loaf program is just one way the WSU Breadlab is working to make whole grain-based products appealing and accessible to consumers. For a loaf to qualify as an Approachable Loaf, it must contain no more than seven ingredients and no non-food, be at least 60% whole wheat, and be priced under $8 a loaf, depending on regionality. Learn more about the WSU Breadlab’s Approachable Loaf here.

Throughout the food development and processing period of the Soil to Society grant, Food Science Team members and grant leadership personnel are working closely with industry stakeholders. In doing so, all parties are working together to create more nutritious, delicious, whole grain-based foods that both appeal to and are accessible to consumers from various demographics and socioeconomic statuses.

“The consumers do not compromise on the taste and texture of the food products. We as researchers need to work collaboratively throughout the plant breeding, agronomy, nutrition, and processing to accomplish this goal and deliver nutritious food products that the consumers enjoy eating. This project is a great example of this.” – Dr. Girish Ganjyal

Soil to Society

The Soil to Society grant is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems (SAS) program. The SAS Soil to Society project involves over 20 researchers from Washington State University and Johns Hopkins University and evaluators from Kansas State University to improve the soil quality where these crops are grown, develop more nutritional varieties and products that can be brought to market, and evaluate the impact of these foods on human health. By bringing together soil scientists, plant breeders, food scientists, and health researchers, the Soil to Society grant will cross disciplines to develop holistic agricultural management strategies and healthy, affordable food products to meet the needs of diverse individuals and communities.

This article is part of a series on the Soil to Society project. This series will explore the work of each project team, highlighting the different areas of collaboration across disciplines that work this project toward its common goal of creating a healthier food system and human population. Articles in this series will be released monthly- mark your calendars for Tuesday, September 19th, so you don’t miss the next one.

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