Cathie Anderson

Inventor develops branBytes to improve whole-grain consumption

After a decade of drum-beating about the health benefits of eating whole grains, only about 40 percent of Americans consume the recommended daily amount. Ashwin Thirunahari thinks he can improve on that statistic.

Thirunahari invented a food product that earned him the $3,000 Award for Innovation in Food & Agriculture in the Big Bang business competition at University of California, Davis.

His product, known as branBytes, is meant to be eaten alongside the refined grains most Americans consume. Together, they supply the fiber-filled bran, the rich germ and the starchy endosperm that dietitians and nutritionists say will help stave off heart disease, diabetes and other chronic, life-threatening ailments.

The idea for branBytes came to Thirunahari after he and his wife, Rajini Dasyam, tried five years ago to integrate more whole grains into their diet.

“We wanted to adopt that lifestyle, but unfortunately, we quickly realized that kids don’t like eating whole grains,” Thirunahari said. “They don’t enjoy the texture and the flavor and the color. The other thing is, we eat mostly rice, for example, and cooking brown rice takes forever, so we gave up on eating whole grains. Since then, my wife and I started thinking about how else we could consume whole grains.”

Thirunahari loves cooking, especially the science of cooking, and he experimented with bran and germ in ways that sometimes tasted downright awful. He finally hit upon the right combination after getting some help from two food science students: Hortense Carrot at San Jose State University and Ting Lin at UC Davis.

“I gave it to a few friends for them to try it out,” Thirunahari said. “They liked the concept. Then I said, ‘Let me try it out with other people I don’t know.’ I sold it at Sunrise Farmers Market.”

The Folsom resident also got permission from his employer, Intel, to sell it at the company cafeteria on its Folsom campus. He initially cut up branBytes into small squares similar to fudge or brownies, and he produced waferlike crisps. Four of them sold for $2.

The branBytes aren’t cooked. Thirunahari uses dates to hold the product together. Most breads, pizza crusts and tortillas are made of only the endosperm of the grain, he said, but branBytes is composed of the other two components: bran and germ.

The inventor is in the midst of changing the look of his product because it looks too much like a nutrition bar, he said, and that’s not its purpose. He’s fashioned branBytes into marble-sized balls that each pack 24 grams of whole-grain power when combined with refined breads. He’s also added flavors such as banana, key lime pie and dark chocolate. Right now, he’s looking at selling 10 for $4 to $5.

“I don’t want this to be on a nutrition bar aisle,” Thirunahari said. “I want it to be placed in the stores beside white bread or white rice. You want to buy white rice. You buy this one, too. You’re buying a pizza…? Get this one, too, to get really good whole-grain nutrition.”

The product concept holds some appeal for Sue Hazeghazam, a registered dietitian and nutrition services supervisor at Sutter Roseville Medical Center.

“People, on average, are not getting enough whole grains and therefore not enough fiber. It does make sense that they supplement (their) diet,” Hazeghazam said. “We serve brown rice here in our hospital, but it’s a challenge because it does dry out faster than the white rice. It’s also just harder to get people to accept that difference in taste.”

Time and again, consumers opt for the taste, mouth-feel and visual appeal of foods made of only the starchy endosperm. Consequently, whole grain foods have become less available. It’s a vicious circle Thirunahari hopes his branBytes will address.

At the Whole Grains Council, registered dietitian Kelly Toups recommends that consumers integrate whole grains into their diets rather than adding supplements. The Whole Grains Council is a division of Oldways, a nonprofit group that promotes healthy eating, and both groups provide a wealth of information on improving food choices at their websites.

“Our mission statement is health through heritage, incorporating foods from traditional foods and diets, such as the Mediterranean diet or the traditional African diet,” Toups said. “The message from us is really that when you look to get whole grains, you should focus on whole foods instead of disassembling things and reassembling them.”

Hazeghazam, however, sees the appeal of a product such as branBytes for consumers who are busy or who won’t accept the taste of whole grains. Her only concern, she said, is that consumers recognize that this is not a cookie or a treat. BranBytes, she said, have a high fiber content, and if people aren’t accustomed to that, it could cause some bowel problems.

“You don’t want to pop them like cookies,” she said. “Water goes hand in hand with any high-fiber foods just to help get that fiber through your body.”

Call The Bee’s Cathie Anderson, (916) 321-1193. Follow her on Twitter @CathieA_SacBee.