Whole grains advocates have made significant progress in bringing down barriers to widespread acceptance of whole grain products in the grocery store. The next step is educating schools, restaurants and the military. That was the key message delivered as part of "Whole Grain Choices … Everywhere America Eats," a three-day conference held Nov. 5-7 and jointly organized by the Whole Grains Council and Oldways Preservation Trust, a Boston-based think tank that specializes in food issues.
"We’ve accomplished what few other groups have ever done before — we’ve actually persuaded millions of people and families to eat more whole grains," said K. Dun Gifford, president of Oldways. In his opening remarks, Mr. Gifford shed light on the progress the W.G.C. has made since its inception in 2003.
He cited two key reasons why the W.G.C.’s mission has been successful: the message is an advance for a universal nutrition goal, and it’s a really good and powerful demonstration of the United States’ grain producers, groups, and government working as partners in a venture that benefits everyone.
Perhaps the W.G.C.’s most important message has been delivered through the Whole Grain stamp program. The stamps, which have been revised several times to address consumer confusion about whole grain content, are beginning to move from the back and side panels of boxes to more prominent front-of-box labeling.
As of October, 170 companies were members of the W.G.C., and are using the Whole Grain stamp on more than 1,400 qualifying products. According to the Council, bread, rolls and bagels accounted for 24.1% of all stamped products, followed by hot cereal, 19.6%; and cold cereal, 11%. Soups, 0.3%, and beverages, 0.3%, make up the smallest grouping, but also appear poised to provide the greatest growth opportunity for future inclusion of whole grains.
Notable for the whole grains movement is that so many producers offer a generous amount of whole grains. Forty-five per cent of products using the Whole Grain stamp qualify for the 100% stamp, which means at least 16 grams of whole grain per labeled serving and no refined grain.
While celebrating the success of the W.G.C., Mr. Gifford was quick to point out more work remains to be done.
"Looking forward I think we have some stiff challenges facing us that we must overcome," he said. "We need to persuade those who have not yet been persuaded to convert."
It’s important to remember that eating and drinking behaviors are "deeply embedded," and that it will take constant education to keep the whole grains message going strong, Mr. Gifford added.
"We must keep the already converted comfortable," he said, "and we must remain nimble."
During the remainder of 2007 and into 2008, the W.G.C. will continue to create and manage programs that promote increased consumption of whole grains.
"What we would like to do is put together a proposal for the Council to make a serious effort to help schools understand how to get whole grains into their food systems," Mr. Gifford said. This effort will include helping with resources and recipes as schools look to meet whole grain requirements that are expected to be included in new school lunch guidelines.
"They (schools) have no choice but to obey the federal rules, which is where the bulk of the money comes from," Mr. Gifford said of current programs in place at schools. He added any future partnerships not only will require education of school food administrators, but parents as well.
Restaurants also present an excellent outlet for future growth. The W.G.C. has stepped up to add restaurant memberships, a move the organization hopes will carry the success of the Whole Grain stamp from the grocery aisle to food service operations in the United States.
The movement was boosted by the "Just Ask for Whole Grains" campaign launched earlier this year to bring whole grains to restaurants. The three main components of the campaign were:
• An on-line contest to reward diners who make consumer demand clear by "Just Asking" for whole grains in restaurants and food outlets everywhere.
• "Whole Grain Report Cards" that consumers may download from the W.G.C. web site, to send a message — either praising or prodding — to restaurant management.
• "Just Ask" buttons and stickers, distributed to registered dietitians, teachers and other community health workers willing to offer workshops and other educational events about whole grains.
"Restaurants are really getting this," said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways/W.G.C. "Once the choices get out there, consumers will choose them if they’re available."
Whole grains have room to grow
When the government recommended in 2005 consumers make at least half of their grains intake whole, it sparked interest in a languishing category ultimately prompting a firestorm of new products promoting whole grains. Today, although the momentum of whole grain product introductions has leveled, interest in the category remains.
That interest has a lot to do with the way food and beverage companies are bundling health and wellness trends, said Lynn Dornblaser, director of consulting for Mintel Custom Solutions, Mintel International, Chicago. Speaking at the "Whole Grains Choices ... Everywhere America Eats"conference held Nov. 5-7 in Kansas City, Ms. Dornblaser said new product introductions containing whole grains totaled 295 through October, which compared with 491 new whole grain products in 2006. Six per cent of all new product introductions this year have incorporated whole grains, she said.
Citing Mintel data, Ms. Dornblaser said the growth of whole grain products has been even more impressive on a global scale, as 1,518 whole grain products have been introduced thus far in 2007, up from 1,243 in 2006 and a mere 209 in 2001. She said a lot of the growth stems from significant interest in Latin America and Europe.
A key behind the growth has been bundling health and wellness issues, Ms. Dornblaser said. She pointed to the introduction of products containing whole grains plus fortification as an example. Specifically, she mentioned new wellness bars from San Francisco-based Attune Foods. The bars contain specially formulated Lafti probiotics that are clinically proven to be effective and help promote health and wellness, balance the digestive system, and support a strong immune system.
In addition, food and beverage manufacturers have linked whole grains with organics, ancient grains, portion control and indulgence as a way to keep the category fresh and exciting.
Ms. Dornblaser said these efforts will be necessary going forward, as whole grain introductions are expected to flatten.
Positive attitudes play key role
In a presentation at the W.G.C. conference, Shelley Goldberg, director of nutrition communications for the International Food Information Council, Washington, said a high level of knowledge about and positive attitudes toward whole grain and fiber present an opportunity to further enhance motivators and help consumers overcome barriers to increase consumption.
According to a food and health survey conducted by I.F.I.C. in May, 25% of consumers are not satisfied with their health status, but 66% have made an effort to improve the healthfulness of their diet. Ms. Goldberg said the data suggest a willingness by consumers to consume a specific food or beverage component, and whole grains rank right near the top of the list.
In an October survey conducted by I.F.I.C., 72% of consumers asked about the specific benefits of the top functional foods associated whole grains with benefits related to cardiovascular disease, while 86% associated both fiber and whole grains with intestinal health.
Seventy-one per cent of consumers surveyed by I.F.I.C. said they are trying to consume more whole grains.
Children provide an opportunity
Dr. Len Marquart, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, believes children will be an important target market in the future in the effort to increase whole grain intake.
Currently, national school programs provide 9 million children with breakfast and 31 million with lunch on a daily basis, he said, and items such as whole wheat pizza crust are becoming just as acceptable as traditional crust. But a challenge remains educating vendors and food service directors, groups that Mr. Marquart said "are passing in the night" and failing to grasp the whole grains message.
He said whole grains are way behind fruits and vegetables and dairy, but that efforts are under way that show promise for growing whole grains consumption among children.
"After-school snack programs are a feasible and effective setting to increase whole grain intake," he said.
This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, December 11, 2007, starting on Page 25. Click