SAN ANTONIO — Whole grains have emerged as an integral part of many foods programs serviced by Compass Group North America, said Jennifer Ignacio M.S., R.D., nutrition communications manager for Compass Group North America.

The growing importance of whole grains at Compass Group, a leader in food service management and support services, was discussed at the recent international conference sponsored by the Whole Grains Council Oct. 17-19 at the San Antonio Marriott River Center. Themed “Whole grains on every plate,” the conference featured several substantive examples of progress made in recent years elevating whole grains from niche product to staple.

Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways Preservation Trust, highlighted progress made since the first whole grains conference eight years ago. She noted that from that time, finding ways to make whole grains a mainstream product has been an objective.

“This year’s (conference) brings more attention to the best ways to increase whole grains consumption,” she said.

Finding a home in food service

Offering concrete examples of where whole grains have been incorporated, Ms. Ignacio of Compass Group said whole grains are included in the minimum standards for “Balance,” one of the company’s wellness programs. According to Compass, the program emphasizes “moderation and encourages healthier leifstyle choices.”

In addition to increased whole grains, the minimum standards includes more than a dozen reduction criteria, such as reduced sodium, trans fat and saturated fat. The program also requires 30 healthful items be offered each day, such as reduced fat cheese, plain nuts, 1% and/or fat free milk and low fat or light salad dressing.

They also are a focal point of “whole+sum,” a station concept for Compass’ cafes that provides a customizable meal for less than 600 calories. Other programs include whole grains as a superfood, participation in whole grains sampling day, and a “guess the grains” program.

Although Compass has incorporated whole grains into a number of its food service outlets, challenges remain, Ms. Ignacio said.

“We all know taste rules,” Ms. Ignacio said. “It’s still No. 1. People are still choosing their food based on taste being No. 1. Health is creeping up, but taste is still first.”

She said the samplings and taste tests that Compass takes part in are helping overcome this barrier. Positive messaging also is important for promoting whole grains, she said.

“Everybody wants to hear … what’s good about things,” she said. “There’s a big push for quality. Everybody is very focused on quality of food. It’s not just what does the food not have. People want to know what the food does have.”

Ms. Ignacio said it remains easier to convince consumers to try new whole grains products than to switching them from refined products they already are familiar with.

Food service operators face several challenges from an operational standpoint, including developing recipes that meet nutrient criteria, sourcing and changing expectations, Ms. Ignacio said.

She said there are opportunities to expand whole grains’ presence in food service through new snacks, bread, rolls, wraps, tortillas and baking mixes. She said Compass also is seeing a growing request for whole grain products without gluten. It’s also important that products created for food service are available at retail, she said.

“It’s great and we find more success when new products we’re able to get to serve in our cafes are also available in retail markets,” she said. “Because if customers can try them in the cafe and then they are able to go home and buy them you are getting double benefit, whereas if we find this great new blend, and we’re making this fantastic pilaf out of it and then they go to the supermarket and they can’t find that same blend there is a bit of a disconnect.”

Fueling the armed forces

Helping soldiers perform better has been an impetus for raising the profile of whole grains in the military, said Lieutenant Colonel Christine Edwards, chief of force health protection for the U.S. Army. Ms. Edward said all branches of the military have stepped up efforts to incorporate good nutrition, including whole grains, into “fueling the force.”

“We’re looking not just at physical action, we’re also talking about cognitive action,” Ms. Edwards said, noting that nutrition is one of the critical pieces that goes into both the physical and cognitive actions of a soldier.

As an example, Ms. Edwards discussed the Army’s Go For Green program, which is a dining facility nutrition education program that features a nutritional recognition labeling system providing the soldier with a quick assessment of the nutritional value of menu offerings and food products in the dining facility. The menu offerings and food items are labeled green (eat often), amber (eat occasionally), and red (eat rarely) based on the impact the food may have on a soldier’s performance. For example, foods labeled green, such as whole grains, are high performance foods that may positively impact a soldier’s performance and foods labeled red are performance inhibiting foods which may negatively impact a soldier’s performance. The program includes posters and menu cards for the serving line providing explanation of the color coding system.

One of the reasons nutrition is becoming increasingly important for the military is many potential recruits are being ruled ineligible to serve because of weight, Ms. Edwards said.

“One of the things we can change is weight,” she said. “Go for Green was birthed out of the initial military training as a means of taking folks who maybe can’t meet the standards initially, but we can work with them to get to standard and keep them at standard.”

Ms. Edwards said the military is trying to sell soldiers on performance, and urged those in attendance to join in the cause in any way they can.

“We can’t sell health to save our lives, but we can sell performance,” Ms. Edwards said. “It’s something that our leaders want. They want their soldiers, warriors, to perform. So we can sell performance. If you can give us the research that says whole grains contributes to performance — physical or cognitive — we would be forever in your debt, because we know that it’s important but we have to be able to show proof.”

Ms. Baer-Sinnott said Oldways and the W.G.C. have created momentum for whole grains through programs and projects since the first gathering in San Diego in 2002. Among those programs, perhaps the most successful has been the Whole Grain Stamp, which was introduced in 2005.

According to the W.G.C., the Whole Grain Stamp is now used on more than 7,600 products in 35 countries as of August 2012. Sixty-eight per cent of the products feature the basic stamp, while 32% include the 100% stamp. Overall, the Whole Grain Stamp helps consumers quickly and easily identify products containing significant amounts of whole grains.

“It’s important that all of us continue working together so that we do have whole grains on every plate,” Ms. Baer-Sinnott said.