Cross currents appear increasingly evident in what has been a remarkable phenomenon in food processing for several years — surging interest in whole grains. On one side, several flour millers interviewed by Milling & Baking News (a sister publication to Food Business News) for a story earlier this month cited a slowdown in interest in whole grain products, specifically those made from whole wheat flour. Concerns appear to have an underpinning of data with whole wheat flour production tracked by Milling & Baking News up only 2.6% in the year ended May 31, well off the pace that led to 19% growth in 2006-07, 26% in 2005-06, 13% in 2004-05 and 16% in 2003-04.

But, on the other hand, bakers and other food companies continue to promote product introductions that have whole grains at their core, and the number of new products containing whole grains is on the upswing according to research tracking firms.

The number of new whole grain food products launched this year is on pace with what came to market in 2007, when 626 new products were introduced, according to the Mintel Global New Products Database. Through Sept. 16, Mintel identified 589 new whole grain products on the market, led by 176 new products in the bakery category. With nearly three-and-a-half more months to go in the year, there already have been more breakfast cereals (175 vs. 166), meals and meal centers (47 vs. 34), and processed fish, meat and egg products (2 vs. 1) introduced containing whole grains than what transpired in all of 2007. Most of the other categories are just off the pace.

Battle in baby food

With whole grains fully embraced by older Americans looking for health benefits, a new trend appears to be taking shape in the land of strollers, formula and sippy cups. Gerber Products Co., Florham Park, N.J., and Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp., St. Louis, in the span of two days earlier this month, announced new product lines geared toward babies and toddlers.

For its part, Gerber, which is part of Nestle Infant Nutrition, expanded its line of baby foods with the introduction of three new dinner purees with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, and one new organic dinner puree. Of interest to the grain-based foods industry is the fact the new items include whole wheat pasta, whole grain brown rice and whole grain oatmeal.

"It is important to introduce babies to the healthy tastes of fruits, vegetables and whole grains," said Jillian Rado, R.D., regulatory specialist for Nestle Infant Nutrition. "Gerber’s new varieties, including purees with DHA and organic food for babies, provide healthy and flavorful options for parents who are concerned about providing their infants with the best nutrition."

The company also re-launched its Organic Cereal line made with whole grains. The products were recalled more than a year ago because it was determined they may potentially contain lumps of cereal. Gerber determined the lumps were related to a manufacturing process and not with product ingredients or formulation.

A day after Gerber’s announcement, Beech-Nut unveiled a new brand of toddler foods called Let’s Grow! The line features 19 products that highlight the company’s "No Junk Promise" of no artificial colors, flavors, MSG or preservatives, as well as all-natural ingredients without trans fats. The line introduces three product groups brand new to the toddler category, including toddler cereal, yogurt-covered whole grain snacks and seven grain snacks.

"The health benefits of whole grains are being more widely recognized for toddlers and infants," said Steve Hungsberg, director of marketing for Beech-Nut. "The question of when to start to monitor and regulate cholesterol intake is now being pushed back to even toddlers and the whole grains are a good way to help this. Also, the whole grains still contain fiber/bran and vitamins and minerals that are typically removed from the grain in the milling process. By using whole grains, these are kept intact and provide added nutrition."

Mr. Hungsberg also said whole grains such as whole oat and brown rice translate well in baby and toddler foods because they do not contain gluten.

Gerber and Beech-Nut join the Earth’s Best brand of The Hain Celestial Group, Inc., which has featured whole grains in its baby foods for a few years.

Future in food service?

Even while acknowledging it appears the segment may be slowing a bit, Mike Veal, vice-president of marketing at ConAgra Mills, Omaha, said there still is a fair amount of growth in whole grains with the potential for more.

"The first wave of growth was driven by retail — baked goods, cereals and snacks," he said. "Over 1,000 new products were introduced over the past three years in those categories. Going forward, I think whole grains will be fueled by continued new product growth in the retail sector. But to really significantly grow, new categories will need to come in, such as pasta, and frozen and boxed meals. There is not a prominent deal of presence in those categories — expect to see more there."

He also mentioned meat products, where whole grains have value as a coating option, and food service, where opportunities for greater use in burgers and pasta reside.

ConAgra’s Ultragrain whole wheat flour, for example, is used in Papa John’s new line of whole wheat pizza. But the opportunity for further growth in food service is out there.

"There is a tremendous opportunity for burgers, buns and coatings used in the food service industry," Mr. Veal said. "However, typically when the industry responds with better-for-you choices, it’s normally with a fringe option, and consumers don’t buy it. Really, the key is to hit mainstream items where it doesn’t change the product from the consumer perspective. Ten to 15% inclusion (of whole grains) in buns won’t change the perception of the product but does have a huge impact on nutritional contribution to consumers’ diets."

Taking that step to incorporate whole grains in food service remains a challenge, though, Mr. Veal admitted. Even though restaurants may be able to make the change without consumers noticing, there remains a fear among the industry of alienating a consumer base, he added.

Like Papa John’s, Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. took that risk when it recently unveiled a new line of menu options designed to offer healthier choices. Included in the line are Starbucks Perfect Oatmeal, which contains up to 7 grams of fiber and 1.5 servings of whole grains; Power Protein Plate, which includes a 100% whole wheat bagel; Berry Stella, which is a 100% whole grain pastry containing fiber, whole grains, real fruit and more than 200 mg of omega-3 fatty acids; and Apple Bran Muffin, which is made with whole wheat flour, oats and wheat bran.

W.G.C. cites widespread growth

Count Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Whole Grains Council (W.G.C.), as one of those unconvinced there is any slowdown in the whole grain movement.

"All the evidence we see is a continued strong trend in whole grains," Ms. Harriman said. "If millers are cutting way back on their whole wheat flour vs. refined wheat flour, they may be surprised to find themselves scrambling as the year moves forward."

Ms. Harriman said nearly 2,200 products are registered to use the Whole Grain Stamp, a labeling option provided by the W.G.C. that clearly states whether a product is a good or excellent source of whole grains. This compares with January 2007, when the stamp was featured on only 1,037 products.

Some of the biggest jumps have occurred in soups, treats, pizza and entrees.

"If we don’t count pearled barley (which we shouldn’t, as it’s not a whole grain), soups with whole grains didn’t exist a few years ago," she said. "Now we’re even getting store brands containing 8 grams or more of whole grains."

Ms. Harriman said the W.G.C. is "tickled pink" to see whole grain baby food go mainstream.

"So much energy is focused on getting school kids to eat whole grains," she said. "Well, if that’s all kids have ever had, there’s no problem when they get to school."

She continued, "Kids often serve as the impetus for eating better in a household, especially new babies. Maybe once mom and dad buy whole grain baby food, they’ll stop and think, ‘Gee, if it’s important for my baby’s health, perhaps I’d better eat some whole grains, too.’"

While whole wheat continues to be the main whole grain ingredient in new product introductions, Kara Berrini, program manager for the W.G.C., said other whole grains are getting into products. Granolas increasingly are using crisp brown rice, while bread is becoming a common outlet for whole grain yellow corn, organic oats, whole grain barley, triticale and rye, Ms. Berrini noted.

Ms. Berrini also pointed to a line of grain side dishes called Seeds of Change from Uncle Ben’s as an example of whole grains variety. Of the five 100% Whole Grain Stamp products, two contain brown rice and quinoa, one contains brown rice, quinoa and millet, and one contains brown rice, spelt, oats, barley, wild rice, bulgur and rye berries.

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