There are thousands of products made from grain from all over the world. Natural products stores have a reputation for carrying a wider variety of products along with emerging new products that kitchens and labs are producing every year. For the most part, the major difference between the products found in the natural product store is the proportion of products made from whole or less refined grains, with fewer additives and more natural and organic ingredients. These are a few of the key categories of products staff and customers will find in the grocery departments of natural food stores.
Pasta is likely a descendent of ancient Asian noodles. Today, most pasta is considered Italian, but every country has its own version. Pasta is made from unleavened dough consisting of ground durum wheat and water or eggs.
Pasta comes in various shapes each having its own name (e.g., spaghetti, macaroni). The dough is rolled into sheets or extruded into ribbons, cords, tubes, or strands and then cut. The shape was chosen for a meal often depends on the sauce it is served with. Pasta can also be filled with other ingredients, including ground meat and cheese in varieties like ravioli and tortellini. Today, pasta is generally cooked by boiling the dough.
Why This Matters:
Pasta is a staple for many people. Its versatility and affordability is hard to beat. Although traditional semolina wheat pasta is the common “go to” customers can choose their pasta based on flavor, shape, dietary needs, and price. Having a wide selection and knowing a little bit about each choice on your shelves is important.
Wheat, particularly durum wheat, is the most common grain used to make pasta. Durum wheat contains hard starchy granules which enable pasta to hold together, yet expand while cooking in boiling water. Dried pastas are made from semolina (a type of durum wheat), which offers a number of beneficial traits including longer shelf life. Although refined, dried “white” pasta is still the most popular. Whole wheat pastas are increasing in popularity due to their higher nutrient and fiber content. Traditional Italian pasta – both white refined and whole wheat – is available in a variety of shapes and sizes, each serving as a suitable twin for different sauces. A good resource for pasta shapes and recipes is www.ilovepasta.org.
Pasta can be flavored with one or more dehydrated vegetables and/or herbs. These include vegetables such as spinach, tomato, bell pepper, artichoke, beets, garlic, and herbs such as basil, rosemary, parsley, pepper, curry, and others. They impart their own unique flavor, along with color and additional nutrients.
Alternatives to wheat pasta include:
- Spelt pasta is chewy like whole wheat pasta with a slightly bitter flavor.
- Triticale pasta tastes similar to whole wheat pasta. Triticale is higher in protein than whole wheat pasta.
- Corn and Rice pastas are possible alternatives for a wheat and gluten-sensitive person. Both should be cooked carefully because they become mushy if overcooked.
- Quinoa/corn pasta is a combination that is lighter in texture although not as tender as corn or rice pasta.
- Quinoa/whole wheat pasta and amaranth/whole wheat pasta are combinations that taste similar to whole wheat pasta but have a slightly less grainy texture.
- Jerusalem artichoke pasta is a gluten-free alternative made from flour produced from this edible, knobby shaped tuber. Jerusalem artichokes are unrelated to globe artichokes and, unlike other tubers such as potatoes, they contain no starch.
Traditional Asian noodles, such as soba, udon, and ramen do not contain eggs. Soba noodles or buckwheat noodles are a Japanese noodle made of 100% buckwheat flour or some combination of buckwheat and whole wheat flours. Buckwheat flour noodles are more fragile but very flavorful. There are also soba noodles made with the addition of Japanese wild yam or mugwort leaves.
Why This Matters:
Asian noodles, like other pasta, are a staple for many people. Even if a customer is not familiar with all the varieties, most have heard of ramen noodles, since they are typically merchandised in the soup section. Soba and Udon noodles, on the other hand, are frequently merchandised in the macrobiotic section alongside seaweeds, tamari, pickled ginger and other products from the Pacific Rim.
There are two types of udon noodles: The most common udon noodles are made with sifted whole wheat flour. The other udon noodles are made with a combination of wheat and brown rice flours. Udon noodles are wider and thicker than soba noodles
Ramen noodles may be made of wheat, rice, or buckwheat. Unlike other Asian pastas, ramen noodles are extruded rather than cut. They are long folded thin noodles which have been pre-steamed to reduce their preparation time. Ramen noodles are a popular lunch choice because they are a quick, tasty, and easy food to prepare, often sold prepackaged with instant soup mix in a variety of flavors. Natural food versions of ramen noodle soup mixes do not contain artificial color, flavor, or preservatives commonly found in conventional brands.
Porridge, a traditionally cooked grain breakfast cereal, has been a staple in Europe and America for centuries. Barley was a common grain used. In America, North American natives taught European settlers how to make corn grits, a coarse meal, and hominy, whole corn kernels that have been soaked in a lime solution to soften the tough outer hulls, both of which took root in the South but not in the North. The first commercial oatmeal manufacturer became Quaker Oats in the mid-1800s and today hot oatmeal is a popular hot cereal in the U.S.
Oatmeal options include:
- Steel Cut Oats are the whole grain kernels (groats) cut into pieces with a sharp metal blade. Often called Irish oatmeal, they take about 15 minutes to cook, and contain more fiber than traditional rolled or instant.
- Scottish Oatmeal is traditionally stone-ground oats, creating broken bits of various sizes that can produce creamier porridge than steel-cut.
- Rolled Oats (sometimes called old-fashioned) are groats that have been steamed and rolled into flat flakes. Rolled oats retain the healthy oils and have shorter cooking time.
- Quick or Instant Oatmeal is typically rolled oats that have been steamed longer and rolled thinner so they will cook very quickly. The nutrition is the same as regular rolled oats, but the texture is creamier.
Other hot whole-grain options include:
- Farina (Cream of Wheat) – Farina is a type of breakfast porridge mix made from wheat semolina that is most often sold under the brand Cream of Wheat. It looks similar to grits but is smoother in texture since it is made with ground wheat kernels instead of ground corn. It was first manufactured in the United States in 1893 by wheat millers in Grand Forks, North Dakota. While farina and Cream of Wheat are filling, they have almost no fiber and can be high in calories. Plain farina that hasn’t been branded or ground in a proprietary method has more of its original nutrients but is higher in calories than the Cream of Wheat brand.
- Wheatina was an American high-fiber, toasted-wheat cereal that originated on Mulberry Street in New York City, New York, circa 1879, when a small bakery owner began roasting whole wheat, grinding it, and packaging it for sale under this brand name.
- Bulgur – hot, cooked cracked wheat – can be topped with dried and fresh fruits and nuts such as almonds, sweetened with maple syrup or agave nectar.
- Quinoa is packed with protein and fiber and makes a healthy breakfast flavored with almonds, dried apricots, maple syrup, orange zest, and cinnamon. Ricotta or yogurt can add creaminess.
- Polenta (a form of ground corn, primarily made from flint corn) can be cooked in low-fat milk and topped with berries, frozen or fresh, and sweetened with maple syrup or honey.
- Grits, most popular in the southern region of the US, is primarily grown from dent corn and differs from polenta in milling method. Corn grits can be cooked in water, then served warm and topped with salt, pepper, eggs, and a bit of butter for a traditional Southern breakfast, or they can be cooled and congealed, cut and fried in a pan.
- Wheat & Spelt berries can be cooked in milk, and then flavored with orange zest, or maple syrup, honey or rice syrup, and cinnamon. Yogurt will add creaminess.
- Mixed grains like quinoa, oats, and flax can be cooked and topped with dates and raisins, ginger, cinnamon, and brown sugar.
There are many natural cold cereal options from puffs & Os to squares and flakes. Generally, these cereals will contain few if any refined grains and sweeteners, offer a wider variety of grains, nuts, seeds, and fruits, contain no chemical preservatives, flavorings, colorings, or GMOs. Natural cereals will typically have "whole wheat," or "wheat bran" listed in the top ingredients, not just "wheat." Many cereal companies are committed to all organic ingredients and their packaging will display the USDA Organic seal. Often these packaged shelf-stable cereals will often be used as an easy to transport snack. Experts recommend that customers choose cereals with at least 5 grams of fiber per serving, and less than 5 grams of sugar and each serving should contain a minimum of 3 grams of protein.
Granola was re-popularized in natural product stores in modern times. Now it can be found on every grocery store shelf. During the late 19th century, the names “Granula” and Granola have registered trademarks for whole grain products that were crumbled then baked until crisp. Granola is now a general universal work for a typical mix of rolled oats and other whole grains, plus nuts, honey or rice syrup, and sometimes dried fruit. The mixture can be pressed together into granola bars, which are used for snacks or breakfast on the go. Muesli is similar to granola, but it is not baked, so the ingredients are raw and typically served with milk or yogurt for breakfast or light supper. It was developed in 1900 by a Swiss physician for patients in his hospital.
Seitan is a vegetarian wheat meat substitute that has been used by people on the Asian continent for centuries. The people who traditionally grew and ate wheat learned how to extract the gluten and create a product with a meat-like texture. Seitan is made by separating the gluten out of hard whole wheat flour by combining flour and water into a dough and then, under running water, kneading out the starch and bran until only the gluten remains. The gluten is then simmered in broth and seasoned (typically with tamari or shoyu and ginger) to become seitan. Seitan can be formed into any shape and has a rich dynamic taste. Popular among vegetarians and vegans, it is esteemed for its hearty meat-like texture and flavor and as a result, is sometimes called mock chicken or mock duck and is popular among vegetarians and vegans.
Why This Matters:
Seitan is a good source of minerals and protein, especially iron, and is the protein base for many meat alternative products such as Tofurky deli slices. Store staff should learn about these products so newcomers to vegan or vegetarian lifestyles can expand their options by adding seitan products to their menu.
Rice products are popular in natural food stores because they offer palatable alternatives to dairy and wheat, so they are attractive to customers on dairy-free or wheat-free diets. Many rice products originated in the Far East where rice is the daily carbohydrate staple instead of wheat, so the range of products made with rice is quite large. In earlier decades, these products offered health food stores a way to broaden a healthful product selection at the same time as differentiating their store from the competition. Raw rice can be made into flours (see above) and rice beverages such as amasake, horchata, rice milk, and sake. Raw rice can also be soaked and sprouted, adding to the diets of raw food or fruitarian diets. Other rice products also include rice vinegar and various rice wines.
Why This Matters:
Asian products are a significant part of the health food industry. Often they are part of a macrobiotic diet and are often known for healthier options, especially when brown rice is used. Knowing some of the culinary and health attributes these products is very helpful to customers.
Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made by mashing steamed sweet brown rice to form a compact slab and then allowing it to cure. It gradually hardens but becomes soft and edible again when it is baked. When baked correctly it will have a crispy outside and chewy interior. Mochi can also be added to soups or pan-fried. Packaged mochi is found in refrigeration in both plain and seasoned varieties. Seasoned mochi offers both the savory and sweet options, including a frozen formed dessert, like ice cream, found in the novelty section of the freezer. It is traditionally eaten in Japan during the first month of the year in celebration of the New Year.
Amasake is a sweet, thick, creamy cultured (fermented) rice beverage made by introducing koji into cooked sweet rice and incubating. Koji is the bacterial culture Aspergillus oryzae. The culturing process produces enzymes that break down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats into more bioavailable forms. This process is similar to malting barley for beer. Because amasake is a fermented food, it is readily digestible and aids digestion of other foods. Amasake is usually sold in plain or flavored (almond, hazelnut, vanilla pecan, and others) varieties. It can be warmed or chilled and consumed like a beverage, or it can be blended with fruit to make smoothies, or used as a sweet liquid in many recipes. A noticeable feature of baking with Amasake is the rich, moist texture it gives baked goods.
Mirin is a traditional Japanese cooking wine made from fermented sweet rice. Like amasake, it is naturally fermented using koji, but its alcoholic content is greater than amasake, ranging from 20% down to only 1%. It is primarily used in cooking and imparts a mild sweetness, contrasting to other Asian sauces such as soy sauce. It is an essential ingredient in Teriyaki sauce and can also be used in vinaigrettes, fish or vegetable dishes, sauces, dips, and barbecued dishes. Mirin can also be used for glazes or frostings, sauces, or other sweet toppings.
Rice milk beverages offer another alternative to cow's milk and cater to vegetarians, vegans, lactose-intolerant customers, and those who are allergic to soy. It is lower in calories than cow's milk, low in fat and cholesterol, doesn't contain lactose, but does contain more carbohydrates than cow's milk. Most commercial rice milk is also fortified with calcium, niacin, vitamin B12, A, D, and iron. Commercial rice milks are made from boiled rice, brown rice syrup, and brown rice starch. Most brands also add thickening agents, flavorings such as vanilla or chocolate, and sweeteners, along with safflower oil or another polyunsaturated vegetable oil, and salt.
Rice “ice-cream” is made from brown rice, water, oil, and thickeners such as guar gum and carrageenan. It is an alternative to dairy-based ice cream and was among the earliest ice cream alternatives after products made with soybeans. Rice Dream is the main brand of rice ice creams found in natural product stores.
Thousands of edible and non-food products are made from corn. In addition to cornflour and various types of cornmeal such as polenta and corn grits, hominy is another product that is typically used in the Southern states. Hominy is corn that has been soaked in an alkaline solution, such as lime juice, which makes the B vitamins and amino acids more bioavailable. Then it is canned or dried. After drying, it can also be cracked and made into grits or masa for tortillas and tamales.
Corn starch, sometimes called cornflour, is the starch from the endosperm of the corn kernel. It is primarily used as a thickener. Corn sweeteners include high fructose corn syrup, glucose (also called dextrose), and crystalline fructose, along with low-calorie sweeteners called polyols that include erythritol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol. (More info about these can be found in Course 102, Lesson 6.)
Corn oil is 59% polyunsaturated fat (24% is monounsaturated and 13% is saturated), so it is lower in cholesterol than other oils and is used in many food products. It is stable in higher heat so it is good for fried foods. Shoppers will be concerned about corn oils made with GMO corn, so store staff should look at labels to assure that the oil is GMO-free.