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The Rock Doc: Scientists taking a healthier look at processed food

Most of us don’t spend a lot of our time cooking from scratch. What’s known as processed foods – everything from snacks to boxed dinners – makes up a great deal of what most Americans eat. Indeed, the majority of what most of us eat is processed to some degree.

Some highly processed foods are not so healthy, especially the ones made with refined flours and ingredients. 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.

For researchers in food science, one of the central questions is: 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 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 American adults 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 is focusing on the 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.

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 be able to sidestep 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.

Stay tuned.

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.


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