Case Study

Sunflower Kernels Help Create Premium Product Image

Nuts and dried fruits are among the usual suspects that bakers round up when looking for ingredients to improve the flavor—and sales—of their breads, bagels and pastries. Often overlooked is the sunflower kernel, a popular addition to European baked goods. But bakers, particularly those who specialize in artisan or hearth breads, may soon see the confection kernel in a new light.

"Although most often found in nine- or 12-grain breads, kernels have a wide range of bakery applications, including brownies, bagels, rolls and even bread sticks," says Bert D'Appolonia, professor emeritus of cereal science, North Dakota State University (Fargo). "When used as a topping, the crunchy texture enhances the crispness of hard rolls and bread sticks."

Sunflower kernels can be used as a substitute for, or in addition to, nuts in various pastries, muffins and cookies. They also are a natural for rye, honey wheat and multigrain breads, adds D'Appolonia. D'Appolonia has more than 30 years experience as a cereal chemist and now serves as a consultant to the National Sunflower Association, a Bismarck, ND-based nonprofit commodity organization., and the North Dakota Wheat Commission (Bismarck) and U.S. Wheat Associates (Washington, D.C.)

When comparing the price of sunflower kernels to that of most nuts, bakers will find that kernels are the economical choice. The cost advantage enables bakers to use kernels in place of nuts, such as pecans and almonds, or to add kernels to the mix to decrease the amount of nuts needed to acquire the same mouthfeel consumers demand in premium breads.

Practical appeal
Sunflower kernels are available in many forms including raw or roasted, chipped or whole. They can be added to existing recipes without reformulation.

"In baked goods, kernels' functionality is similar to other added nuts or fruit pieces or raisins," D'Appolonia, explains, "and they do not dilute the wheat gluten proteins."

The gluten proteins present in flour are largely responsible for the quality of the final loaf of bread. According to D'Appolonia, when wheat flour is blended with other flour types, such as in a multigrain bread, wheat gluten protein is diluted. This can negatively affect finished product quality.

A study conducted for the National Sunflower Association by the American Institute of Baking reports no change in baking, mixing time or absorption with the addition of either 10% or 15% sunflower kernels for white pan bread. Similar results for multigrain loaves would be expected. The small decrease in loaf volume noted is due to decreased loaf expansion, as would be expected, D'Appolonia says.

In addition to not affecting the baking process, sunflower kernels have a limited affect on baked product shelflife. Research studies at the Minnesota Agriculture Utilization Research Institute and University of Minnesota in 1995 show that in the raw, untreated state, the kernel is stable and retains freshness for up to 48 weeks. The shelf life of the roasted kernel can extend up to 32 weeks at a storage temperature of 40°C, the study shows. As the temperature increases, the shelf life decreases as a result of greater oxidative rancidity. In baked goods, however, the kernel's shelf life extends beyond that of the breads, bagels or rolls, which is usually five to seven days.

Another consideration that doesn't affect bread products, is the presence of chlorogenic acid. Under alkaline pH conditions, this acid may turn the product a harmless greenish color. But D'Appolonia says the color development does not occur in bread products because the pH of bread dough is between 5.0 and 6.0 and is consequently acidic.

Chemically leavened products, on the other hand, may have an alkaline pH leading to development of the greenish color. However, the solution is simple.

"If a product does exist in an alkaline environment, adding something acidic to the mixture will prevent the harmless discoloration," says Sharon Davis, a family and consumer sciences educator based in Lincoln, NE.

If necessary, Davis suggests using vinegar, orange or lemon juice, honey, or cream of tartar to prevent the color change.

Health appeal
Not only do kernels add crunch to baked goods, but they can make a product more appealing to health-conscious consumers. According to a 1989 Gallup survey, consumers associate healthfulness with sunflower kernels. And research backs up their perceptions.

Kernels contain mainly polyunsaturates, the so-called "good" fat that may reduce risk of heart disease. They also are an excellent source of vitamin E, fiber, protein, iron, zinc and folic acid. Nutrient for nutrient, the USDA Nutrient Data for Standard Reference shows kernels outshine nuts when it comes to being a healthful addition to food products. To see a chart comparing the vitamin E content of sunflower kernels with nuts, click here.

And as the desire for more healthful foods and European-style breads increases in the U.S., executives at the National Sunflower Association expect kernels to become a more common ingredient.

"U.S. consumers generally view kernels as a snack, but overseas—particularly in Germany and the Netherlands—the kernel is popular in breads, pastries and baked goods," says Kaye Effertz, marketing director for the National Sunflower Association. "We expect kernel use to increase in America because the kernel meets the demands of both the European-style breads and the healthful ingredients trends."

National Sunflower Association, 4023 State St., Bismarck, ND 58501. Tel: 701-328-5100.