For grain-based foods, the 2000s have been marked by unprecedented efforts to break through consumer resistance to whole grains and develop products that would have traction in the marketplace. For all these efforts, data showing whole wheat flour accounting for only 5 per cent of total production are downright sobering. This leads to the conclusion that in the face of the considerable energy devoted to this undertaking, whole grains remain in the realm of niche products.

While whole grain food intake is not yet close to federal guidelines urging that the category account for at least half of total grains consumption, recent analyses of overall eating patterns cast the whole grain trends in a completely different light. Against the backdrop of overall eating patterns tracked in research by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, what has transpired in whole grains during the past decade is not merely a modest success but a genuine triumph for grain-based foods. It is one that potentially sets the industry as a model for the rest of the food industry.

The basic conclusion of the E.R.S. research is hardly a surprise — Americans overwhelmingly are not making healthy eating choices. But the article, “Americans’ Food Choices at Home and Away: How Do They Compare with Recommendations” features numerous fascinating observations. While away-from-home eating is a popular target for blame when it comes to rising obesity and associated health problems, the authors note food prepared at home still accounts for two-thirds of the calories consumed by most Americans. E.R.S. researchers compared supermarket purchases as recorded by Nielsen Homescan from 1998-2006 with the U.S.D.A. food plan guidance. The latter advice is based on the Dietary Guidelines. Looking at 23 different food categories, the researchers measured how closely purchases match the nutritional recommendations. Their conclusion is that purchases don’t match up at all. Of the 23 categories, only in 1 instance — potatoes — did actual buying match the recommended level of expenditures. Again and again, consumers underspent on healthier foods and overspent on indulgent foods and treats. For example, families spent 0.5 per cent of their food budgets on dark green vegetables, versus the 7 per cent recommended by U.S.D.A. Spending on sugar and candies was estimated at 13.5 per cent, versus a recommendation below 1 per cent.

Contrary to ideas unhealthy eating is concentrated among the poor or certain ethnic groups, the researchers found that “dietary quality is a general problem in the U.S.” Yes, there are measurable differences in healthfulness of food purchased by families with household incomes below $12,000 and above $200,000, but the differences were a matter of degree. “Both groups’ scores indicated food purchasing patterns that were far from ideal when compared with recommendations,” the researchers found.

Another observation is that for the most part, the contents of the typical grocery cart in 2006 was not significantly healthier than in 1998, despite the many efforts to convince people to eat healthier. For example, consumers were spending less of their food budgets on fruits and vegetables in 2006 than in 1998, while increasing spending on packaged and processed foods and beverages.

Which brings us back to whole grains. It is the one and only category showing significant improvement between 1998 and 2006, nearly doubling to 1.3 per cent of food spending from 0.7.

“Increased emphasis on the health benefits of whole grains likely caught the attention of both the food industry and consumers,” the researchers said. “This growing interest in whole grains led food companies to expand supply by offering a wider range of whole grain products, and consumers, in turn, increased purchases.”

True, but similar emphasis did not yield positive results for fruits and vegetables. The data show just how tough it is to change eating habits and how remarkable the growth in whole grains has been. The investments that milling and baking companies have made in whole grains have paid off.