I met Andrew at the BlogHer Food conference last year in San Francisco at a blogger dinner one night. The next day, a group of us walked back from eating lunch in a nearby park and through our conversation, we found synchronicity between the way he approaches healthy eating and the foods we make.
Did you know the name cereal comes from the name for the Roman goddess of agriculture and harvest, Ceres? It’s interesting to consider that the history of cereal is found in digestive health and was suggested as a dietary option from healthcare providers. Over time, cereals started to move away from being made in the traditional batch cooked method using the whole grains, and instead towards using flours that are extruded. As a result, nutrient loss became a problem. During World War II, nutrient loss became more of an issue in the American diet, and as a result cereal companies began to fortify cereals such as with the essential B-vitamins and iron, which were being lost from processing. This process remains overwhelmingly prevalent today amongst conventional cereals.
Through this common practice, Uncle Sam became fortified with essential B-vitamins, and remained so through last year. We are always looking to simplify our products, and we asked the question as to why the cereal was fortified. We decided to test the raw grains for their actual B-vitamin content, and compared it to the unfortified finished toasted whole wheat berry flake. What we found was that there was no material change in the levels of B-vitamins. As a result, we removed the fortification process from our cereal manufacturing.
How Cereal is Made
Cereal is made one of three ways: Batch Cooking (flaked or “bumped”), Batch Cooking (Cold Form Extruded), and Extruded.
Batch cooked cereal using the bumped and flaked process is made from the whole kernel of rice, corn, or wheat — not from flour or meal. The grains are first cooked in a large tank that is basically a pressure cooker the size of a small kitchen. The kernels are then rolled into flakes or “bumped” (which means to “crack” the grain of rice, corn, or wheat). The cracked grains are then toasted or coated. A good example of a cereal made using this process would be Uncle Sam and all our Erewhon cereals except for Strawberry Crisp.
Batch cooked cereal that is cold form extruded is another way of making cereal. The cold form process starts by cooking whole grains in a batch cooker. The cooked grains are then introduced into a cold form extruder, which uses minimal heat to turn ingredients into a pellet. The pellets are then rolled into flakes and toasted or coated. An example of this includes our Strawberry Crisp cereal.
The last way to make cereal is using the extrusion process. Today, most conventional cereals are made with this method. This process starts with flour or meal that has been turned into dough. The extruder reaches high temperatures and pressures, which both form and cook the dough. Shapes and larger flakes can be produced by pushing (extruding) the dough through a cookie-cutter-type machine. Afterwards, various shapes or flakes can be “puffed.” The pressure inside the extruder is very high, and once the shapes or flakes leave the extruder and are introduced to regular atmospheric pressure, they puff up from the pressure change. Some examples of this would be O-shaped cereals, star-shaped cereals and in general, flake cereals.
(Want even more details on the different ways breakfast cereals are made? Check out this article.)
At Attune Foods, we focus on batch cooked because it preserves the integrity of the whole grains. Our Uncle Sam cereal uses hard red winter wheat berries from South Dakota. Here’s a simple look into how it’s made, with photos from my home kitchen showing the batch cooking-flaking process (steamed – rolled – toasted) in action.
Step 1: Steaming
The first step of cooking the wheat berries is to steam them. This involves boiling water and adding the wheat berries, barley malt, and sea salt to a huge pressure cooker until they’re cooked. (Since my kitchen doesn’t have a pressure cooker, I steamed them for over an hour until they softened.)
Step 2: Rolling
This step turns the wheat berry kernels into flakes by rolling them flat. Using much bigger rollers than what you’d find in your home kitchen, it’s the same concept of rolling the wheat berries flat. (In my at-home demonstration, I used a heavy bottle instead of a roller to flatten the wheat berries and illustrate the point).
Step 3: Toasting
The cereal is introduced to hot air that circulates around it to dry the kernels and toast them to their crispy best. This reduces moisture to ensure it stays crunchy in the box, while improving taste. (I hand placed each wheat berry on the small pan so there would be no overlap, as they were still rather sticky and wet. Then I watched the toaster oven carefully to toast and dry them without burning.)
And voilà! Uncle Sam cereal flakes made in my home kitchen: Hard red winter wheat berry flakes that are steamed, rolled and toasted and now ready for a bowl and a splash of milk.
So next time you’re in the cereal aisle, we hope this information helps you make an informed choice and perhaps even turns selecting the right cereal for you into a decision that includes the ingredients used as well as the process by which they are made. Happy breakfasting!