CHICAGO — For today’s consumers, alternative grains — alternative anything, really — are in high fashion. And they were a hot topic on opening day at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) IFT FIRST conference, being held July 11-13.

Ajay Bhaskar, PhD, R&D director, product development for PepsiCo Inc., and Keith Petrofsky, PhD, R&D director for Ardent Mills, shared the stage to identify how the rising popularity of certain alternative grains are impacting R&D for bakery and snack manufacturers.

So, what exactly are alternative grains? Not every consumer may think of alternative grains the same way, whether it’s considering them as a category unto themselves or as individual types of grains. That said, USDA defines them as those grains that are not the traditional wheat, corn or rice, but anything that takes their place. While that’s a broad category and can contain anything from sorghum and millet to ancient grains, it creates a lot of grey area for consumers — and even more for food producers — especially with the grey area surrounding which ones have gluten, such as rye, barley or spelt.

Then there are non-cereal grains and pulses that fall into the alternative category as well. It might be a lot to keep track of and understand, but it also provides a wealth of opportunity for product development.

Interestingly, many alternative grains have caught consumers’ eyes before the more mainstream. It feeds into consumers’ increasingly adventurous nature when it comes to food consumption.

“Alternative grains are really being driven by consumer demand,” Petrofsky said. “And they’re looking for a couple things relating to health, both for their personal wellbeing and the health of the planet.”

Because alternative grains are usually sold as whole grains or whole grain flours, they immediately come with a healthy halo attached, whether it’s for heart health, gut health or weight management.

According to Ardent Mills research, 71% of consumers said that in the past six months, they’ve made a purchasing decision based on their health and chosen alternative grains.

“Additionally, 55 percent are looking at eating healthier; 29 percent are actively seeking specific ingredients; and 32 percent are avoiding certain ingredients altogether,” Petrofsky said.

In terms of a healthy planet, more people than ever are thinking about their food choices in relation to the earth, and that’s casting an even brighter spotlight on alternative grains.

“A lot of consumers want to make sure the things they buy are good for the planet as well as their bodies,” Petrofsky said. “That’s about not only sourcing but also following those ingredients through the food chain and knowing the companies they purchase from have ethical principles.”


“These grains contain a lot of starch, protein and fiber, so formulations are challenging. But it also can be a little bit easier than some grains because they do come with cleaner flavor profiles, and the texture is much nicer.”


When consumers are driving product trends, they’re going with what they know. A few years ago, when the trend was for high-protein, low-fat diets, product developers were mainly focused on soy isolates.

“Today, consumers are more enlightened,” Bhaskar said. “They’re looking for more balanced nutrition, and a clean label is also very important.”

Alternative grains go beyond consumer trends and offer several benefits for formulating and product development … and it goes across the entire supply chain.

Take pulses, a nitrogen-fixing crop that can actually improve sustainability by reducing dependence on chemical fertilizer. Additionally, pulses aren’t competing with traditional grains for land or resources to grow.

Other alternative grains like quinoa have regional flexibility on where they’re grown.

“Crops like quinoa can be grown in a lot of different climates, especially at high altitudes, in dry temperatures and high-salinity soils in different environments,” Petrofsky said. “They also consume less water. So, from a sustainability perspective, ancient grains have several different niches they can fill. And a lot of that is important to consumers because we’re talking about high nutritive value foods and whole grains that fit into these trends.”

From a manufacturing perspective, volume and availability are key considerations. Grains like peas and chickpeas have an advantage because they’re grown in North America, which can alleviate a bit of the supply chain pressure. Despite inflationary concerns across the board, Bhaskar hinted that the demand for these types of grains could help keep the costs down.

“In the next few years, as the demand continues, pricing will come down to match standard grains with peas, chickpeas and lentils.”

Formulating with alternative grains come with their own key considerations, including flavor and texture specifically.

“These grains contain a lot of starch, protein and fiber, so formulations are challenging,” Bhaskar said. “But it also can be a little bit easier than some grains because they do come with cleaner flavor profiles, and the texture is much nicer.”

As consumer preferences continue to mature, alternative grain ingredients will hold their place in the spotlight for formulators developing high quality, nutritious baked goods that also provide a sustainability glow.