The whole grains wake-up call

by Eric Schroeder
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MINNEAPOLIS — The government, through the recent release of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the subsequent creation of MyPyramid, has set the stage for whole grains to grab a larger foothold in the American diet. The next move is in the hands of industry.

That next move was detailed as part of wide ranging discussion at the "Whole Grains & Health: A Global Summit" meeting held May 18-20 in Minneapolis.

"With the Dietary Guidelines just coming out it is propitious timing for this event," said Julie Miller Jones, College of St. Catherine and University of Minnesota, and co-chair of the conference.

Indeed, the recent release of the Dietary Guidelines and MyPyramid have placed whole grains in the spotlight. However, perspective gleaned from the presentations and interactive panel discussions suggest all parties involved in whole grains promotion have not found the golden ticket that will lead to greater consumption for consumers and higher sales for food companies.

Definition needs clarification

A major source of confusion surrounds the definition of "whole grain" and establishing the framework for appropriately using claims about whole grains. Conference participants, most with some working knowledge of what constitutes a whole grain, at different times throughout the meeting said they have in the past knowingly struggled with identifying whole grain products on store shelves. In doing so, they underscored the enormous hurdle industry must overcome in educating consumers, many of whom have no idea what constitutes a whole grain.

The fact that industry does not have definite guidelines from the government as to what they may and may not claim is one of several knowledge gaps, said Judi Adams, president of the Grain Foods Foundation. Ms. Adams noted that industry is not consistent in how it approaches labeling because the Food and Drug Administration has not established any guidelines. Until consistency within whole grain labeling occurs, consumers will remain confused, she said.

"The industry must work together to encourage F.D.A. to act on defining whole grains and providing labeling definitions," Ms. Adams recommended. "This will give industry and the public the opportunity to comment on the F.D.A. proposal to ensure the definition and the labels are accurate and fair to all of the industry and actionable for the consumer."

On a positive note, Dr. Lester M. Crawford, acting commissioner of the F.D.A., said the government has set as a priority for the coming year defining the term "whole grain." Currently, the government has under consideration a petition from Minneapolis-based General Mills, Inc. that calls for definitions of "good source" and "excellent source" of whole grains.

"We believe this is an important component of our strategy to provide consumers with the tools they need to lead healthier lives through better nutrition," Dr. Crawford said.

In the meantime, a growing number of companies are incorporating one of three Whole Grain Stamps onto their packaging as a way for consumers to easily identify real whole grain products. In order to use the stamps, companies must be a member of the Whole Grains Council.

Taste as the ticket?

Another topic of debate at the conference revolved around the issue of taste. Whole grain products long have been associated with lacking taste and most participants agreed that the key to increasing consumption of whole grains to the three servings per day recommended by the Dietary Guidelines resides in improving flavor.

A variety of products were on hand for sampling as part of the breaks and lunches at the conference. One product, Sara Lee Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Bread, was introduced as a transitional bread that has the taste, texture, appearance and economy of white bread, while providing a good source of whole grains per serving.

"We’re going to offer consumers the chance to have a product that looks like white bread, tastes like white bread, it is white bread, but it has (added) nutritional benefits," said William J. Nictakis, president, U.S. Fresh Bakery, Sara Lee Bakery Group. The new bread will launch July 18.


Scott R. Frazer, research and development manager, Horizon Milling L.L.C., Minnetonka, Minn., expanded on the importance of taste.

"Only a few of the components in wheat bread that affect its taste have been identified and the analyses of only a few of those components have been developed," he noted. "To make better-tasting, whole wheat bread, a better understanding of what causes taste in bread would be important."

Going forward, Mr. Frazer recommended industry conduct commercial and academic seed development to achieve cereal grain varieties that provide lighter color, softer texture and less bitterness.

"We need to develop the means to better analyze for many of the flavor components naturally present in the grains we eat regularly," he said. "It is ironic that, while we know the molecular formulas for many flavorings that we now add to food, we don’t have this same level of understanding about the grain itself."

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