ConAgra R.&D. director sees more progress ahead for whole grains

by Josh Sosland
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MINNEAPOLIS — Efforts to make whole grain products more palatable and popular are bearing fruit steadily, said Elizabeth A. Arndt, director of research and development at ConAgra Foods, Inc., Omaha.

Dr. Arndt offered her thoughts on the dynamics of the market for whole grain foods in a December presentation to the Grains for Health Foundation at a symposium, "Delivering Added-value Grain-based Foods through School Meals."

Dr. Arndt said progress toward incorporating more whole grains into popular enriched flour products continues.

"Food manufacturers’ comfort level with working with whole grains is increasing," she said. "Food product developers have become more familiar with how to optimize texture and other product attributes. The quality and selection of whole grain products on the market is continuing to improve and consumers are responding in a positive way to the increased offerings. For example in the tortilla category the whole grain tortilla dollar share increased from 2% in 2003 to 26% in 2008 (based on Information Resources, Inc. data). Increases are also clear for crackers, pasta, flour, fresh bread and rolls as well as a number of other categories."

Trying to find ways to successfully incorporate more whole grains into the diet of children has been a ConAgra Mills focus for several years. A recently published study by a team from the University of Minnesota showed that when pizza crust, wraps and breadsticks were made with 51% Ultragrain whole wheat flour, plate waste (how much food was left on plates and thrown away) levels did not rise significantly versus products made with enriched flour. Ultragrain is ConAgra Mills’ patented whole wheat flour.

A large part of Dr. Arndt’s presentation, "Insights into the Development of Whole Grain Products for Kids," was devoted to discussing a study sponsored by ConAgra exploring how children would respond to a granola snack mix made with whole grain ingredients rather than a crisped rice marshmallow snack bar.

The study was conducted by Leila Sadeghi, a graduate student of Len Marquart at the University of Minnesota. Subjects were 150 school children from the Roseville School District in the Twin Cities. On multiple occasions, students were given either a whole grain granola snack mix or a commercial crisped rice marshmallow treat bar. The granola mix was made with ConAgra Mills’ Sustagrain high fiber whole barley flakes. The granola mix contained 16 grams of whole grain and 6 grams of fiber per 30 gram serving.

Both products were well accepted, though plate waste was higher with the granola mix, Dr. Arndt said.

Interviewed following the study, students suggested a host of changes to the granola mix such as adding raisins, pretzels, or making the flakes into clusters that are larger and easier to eat. Additionally, packaging changes were suggested.

Dr. Arndt said the results of the study were consistent with what is happening more broadly with whole grains in the food industry. Progress was achieved, and with further tweaks such as making granola clusters, success could be even greater. Familiarity factors into how well whole grain versions of foods are accepted.

"It’s a matter of expectations and what the kids are used to," she said. "Children are used to their favorite foods having a certain appearance and sensory characteristics. Providing whole grain products that meet their expectations helps ensure success.

"This study provided important insights. Even though it wasn’t a smashing success, it was good and the kids got some great nutritional contribution from the granola mix. What can we do better? We learned we need to make this food more familiar and easier to eat. The packaging wasn’t convenient. The kids didn’t know what to do with it. Next time, we are considering trying Sustagrain in something more familiar, such as a bar or extruded snack."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Milling and Baking News, February 10, 2008, starting on Page 32. Click here to search that archive.

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