Whole Grains: Niche to Norm

by Jennifer Barnett Fox
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Many have inquired what makes the world go ’round. But who would have considered whole grains answering that question? Steadily, a proliferation of whole-grain options has appeared in school lunch programs and military mess halls, as in-flight airline snacks and in restaurant offerings from fast-food chains to high-end dining. And among mainstream consumers, acceptance and demand for whole-grain items is higher than ever, with 2010 declared the year of whole grains by Spins, a research and marketing service for the natural products industry located in Schaumburg, IL.

IT TAKES AN INDUSTRY.

Despite the continuing success of whole-grain foods, few would deny that, over the years, these products have been a hard sell for consumers and many people in the baking and snack industries. In no small measure, this revolution can be attributed to the R&D scientists who reformulate recipes; equipment engineers who create and re-fabricated existing machinery to accommodate rough and heavy doughs; and marketing managers who continue efforts touting the benefits of whole-grain foods. During the last five to 10 years, these collective contributions have elevated whole-grain products from niche to norm.

Outside of the industry, whole-grain consumption garnered an official boost in 2005 with the suggestion from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services to consume some whole grains as a part of total grain intake in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). Fast forward to 2010, and that suggestion has evolved into a recommendation to consume at least half (three) of your grains as whole.

In fact, each chapter of the 2010 DGA addresses whole grains, according to Eve V. Essery, PhD, a USDA nutritionist who spoke at the recent Whole Grains Council (WCG) conference in Portland, OR. The rationale behind these recommendations was that the consumption of whole grains helps meet nutrient needs and may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. More information on the 2010 recommendations can be found at www.dietaryguidelines.gov.

KEEPING THE MOMENTUM.

Looking beyond government-guided recommendations, there are other aspects that could point to the increase in whole-grain love. Jerry Burger, PhD, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University in California, suggested that social norms could play a role in the consumption of whole grains.

Social norms include injunctive and descriptive norms. Injunctive norms are what society says you should do, and descriptive norms are what people actually decide to do and relate directly to our actions. Dr. Burger, another WGC conference speaker, said that people are naturally conditioned to follow the crowd. For example, the way people around us eat influences our own food choices.

When this hypothesis is seen in the context of the recent DGA recommendations, one could infer that the whole-grain recommendations found throughout the 2010 DGA, along with the proliferation of whole-grain product introductions, could increase the consumption of whole grains — if that’s what the crowd is doing.

In an effort to be ever-present, a number of manufacturers of better-for-you foods have placed their products in vending machines alongside traditional vending fare, producing somewhat mixed results.

Sean Kelly, CEO of HUMAN (Helping Unite Man And Nutrition) Healthy Vending, Kaysville, UT, believes that traditional vending does a disservice to healthy foods. Created with the belief that healthy food needs to be just as convenient as the not-as-healthy counterparts, HUMAN was the first 100% healthy vending option. The coil-free machines can accommodate a variety of product sizes and feature LCD screens that can be customized with nutrition education information.

“Gone are the days when vending machines were nothing more than ugly, slow-to-innovate lock-boxes stocked with candy and snacks,” Mr. Kelly said. “For the first time ever, thanks to the advent of the automated retailer, the channel of vending has the strong potential to play an important role in elevating the consumption of whole grains and other healthy food items in the American diet.”

Strike while it’s hot. The buzz surrounding whole grains is undeniably strong, but how can you guarantee that your messages about whole grains are effective? Since 2005, General Mills, Minneapolis, MN, has increased the whole-grain content of its cereals following recommendations for increased daily intake of whole grains in the 2005 DGA. A noble effort, but an October 2010 survey (
www.wholegraingap.com) conducted jointly by the company and the Bell Institute found that when it comes to whole-grain nutrition, most consumers don’t understand the difference between whole and enriched grains. Additionally, most believed they were eating more whole grains than they really were, with more men drawing this conclusion than women.

“We are re-energizing our whole-grain message to help consumers identify whole grains more easily. Our focus on in-store advertising is driven by our research that the whole-grain choices are confusing,” said Adrienne Daniels, marketing manager of the General Mills whole grain campaign, in a Feb. 2 article in The New York Times.

In addition to the 2010 DGA, many educational tools have been created to help consumers make better choices. Mere weeks ahead of the DGA announcement came Nutrition Keys, a joint project from the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Manufacturers Institute (FMI). The initiative, which will be adopted by GMA and FMI member companies, established front-of-packaging icons or “keys” for calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar, which were deemed to be the most important aspects to consumers, according to a joint statement from the two organizations. ConAgra Foods, Omaha, NE, has committed to use the new Nutrition Keys icons on 100% of its products.

In a continuing effort to educate the industry about nutrition and whole grains, ConAgra Mills hosted a webinar on Feb. 24 to demonstrate to the food service industry how to deliver great-tasting foods with strong nutritional profiles using the company’s Ultragrain whole-wheat flour.

Supervalu, a supplier of grocery retail and supply chain services, recently introduced its own nutrition education program called “nutrition iQ.” The “better for you food finder” was created by Supervalu and the Joslyn Center for Diabetes in Boston, MA, to provide shoppers with positive attributes about the foods they purchase. For example, most people know that bananas contain potassium but do not know what potassium does in the body.

The company evaluated more than 90,000 UPCs for the program, and 15,000 were approved for inclusion, according to Craig Stacey, director of health and wellness marketing at Supervalu, Eden Prairie, MN. 20% of those 15,000 approved foods contained whole grains.

“nutrition iQ is used as a differentiator and brand builder,” Mr. Stacey said. “We want our rankings to remain independent from manufacturers so they remain objective.”

While information — especially from educated sources — is always a good thing, the newest concern among consumers might be how to determine which sources best meet their individual nutritional aspirations.

SHOWING BY EXAMPLE.

Whole grains aren’t just taking the US by storm. Interest in the manufacture and consumption of whole-grain items continues to gain traction in Latin America and China. Grupo Bimbo, the Mexico City, Mexico, baking conglomerate, has promoted the consumption of whole grains since 2005 and has teamed with WGC to introduce the WGC Whole Grain Stamp into 15 countries. Currently, 250 of the company’s products carry the WGC stamp.

Similar to the confusion discovered by the US-based General Mills survey, Bimbo found that many of its consumers were unable to identify whole grains and did not understand the difference between whole and enriched grains. Implementation was further hampered by a lack of a global standard for whole grains in Latin America and the challenge of ensuring a reliable supply of whole-grain flour.

Most recently, members of the Center for Public Nutrition & Development in China began advocating whole grains in an effort to improve the health of the Chinese. Many of these consumers are considering adding whole grains as a way to increase health, beauty and longevity.

“As a result of the rapid changes in China, people are looking for ways to combat pollution, accelerating lifestyles and work pressures,” said Yu Xiadong, general director, Center for Public Nutrition & Development of China, speaking through a translator at the WGC conference. “While we traditionally have preferred refined foods, there is greater nutritional loss because of the processing.”

FIND THE SWEET SPOT.

The current passion and acceptance of whole-grain foods did not happen overnight, and in the interest of specific population groups, it would be imprudent to overlook the benefits of refined grains for fortification purposes such as folic acid. In light of this, perhaps the best lesson manufacturers and governing bodies can communicate to consumers is one of balance and a continuing pursuit of grains that taste great.

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