Several years have passed since the hype surrounding whole grains reached its peak, but the underlying strength of the movement toward products featuring higher whole grain content remains impressive. In the words of Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition for the Whole Grains Council, “whole grains are becoming the norm.”

Ms. Harriman’s statement is backed by the widespread inclusion of whole grains in ready-to-eat cereals and bread products, as well as by the growing number of schools making whole grains a staple of their eating programs. It’s clear that many of the barriers identified in the past, such as taste and texture, have been broken down.

According to the 2010 National Grocers Association Consumer Panel Survey, 58% of household shoppers are eating whole grains in an effort to ensure their diet is healthy, up 4 percentage points from the previous year’s survey. The annual consumer survey, which is sponsored by the N.G.A., ConAgra Foods, Inc. and the, examined responses from 2,438 chief household shoppers between November 2009 and early January 2010.

No longer the featured benefit

Data from Mintel International show the number of new U.S. food products launched with a whole grain “claim” totaled 625 in 2009, down from 795 in 2008 and 642 in 2007, but still up sharply from 373 in 2005 and 162 in 2004. While the number of new product introductions featuring whole grains remains strong, it is becoming more common for other attributes to be featured more prominently in the marketing.

In the past month alone, Sara Lee Corp., Downers Grove, Ill., introduced products deemed “excellent sources” of whole grains but noteworthy for other reasons. The company revamped its Earthgrains 100% natural and 100% whole grains bread with Eco-Grain wheat, which is grown with innovative farming techniques Sara Lee described as promoting “more sustainable use of land.” Most of the bread varieties containing Eco-Grain offer 19 grams of whole grains per serving.

Subsequently, Sara Lee partnered with Martek Biosciences Corp. to create Sara Lee Soft & Smooth Plus bread Made with DHA Omega-3. Available in 100% Whole Wheat and Made with Whole Grain White, the bread varieties are the first to be distributed in the United States featuring Martek’s life’sDHA. The products contain 26 grams of whole grains per two slice serving, but only scant mention of whole grains was made in the release issued by Sara Lee in conjunction with the product launch.

Weight management and versatility were among the features cited by Flowers Foods, Inc., Thomasville, Ga., as part of its January launch of Thin Sliced Bagels, but one of the two varieties available — 100% whole wheat — also contains 33 grams of whole grains and 5 grams of fiber per serving.

Beyond the bakery aisle, whole grains continue to infiltrate the prepared meals category. Nestle USA, Glendale, Calif., late last month announced it has reformulated its Spa Cuisine frozen entrees, a line extension of its Lean Cuisine brand, to include at least 5 grams of dietary fiber in each serving.

Introduced in 2004, the Spa Cuisine line currently contains 16 varieties, and the recent reformulation involved recipe changes for five products. Whole grains featured in the reformulated products include whole wheat orzo, whole wheat vermicelli, whole wheat pilaf and whole wheat pasta.

Omaha-based ConAgra Foods has maintained the pace in innovation as well, featuring whole grain pasta in its just launched Healthy Choice Café Steamers, All Natural Entrees and Select Entrees product lines.

Ms. Harriman of the W.G.C. said the move toward more products containing whole grains minus the promotion is in line with a trend toward whole, real foods. The fact whole grains are not being heavily promoted in product launches is far from a negative, Ms. Harriman said. In fact, she said it’s a good thing.

“We’ll know we’ve really succeeded when the Whole Grain Stamp is no longer needed,” she said of the marketing program established in 2005 and which now includes 3,400 different products. “At some point, when whole grains become the norm rather than the exception — when virtually all grain products are just naturally made with whole grain — there’ll be no point in highlighting whole grain content. That’s the goal.”

That goal may still be in the distant future. While whole grains feature prominently in new products, industry data show that less than 5% of U.S. flour production is whole wheat.

Whole grains and fiber

Beyond innovation, whole grains and their relationship with fiber were an issue of discussion at the Consumer Analyst Group of New York conference held last month in Boca Raton, Fla. During the Kellogg Co. presentation, the company’s chief executive officer was asked about base trends in the cereal category, and whether consumers’ gravitation toward added fiber and whole grain products was less in Kellogg’s wheelhouse and more in the wheelhouse of competitor General Mills, Inc.

“On the issue of fiber and whole grain there is no question that (General) Mills has done a very good job on whole grain,” said David Mackay, president and chief executive officer of Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg. “I would have to tell you from a scientific perspective the issue for American consumers is that 9 out of 10 adults and kids don’t get enough fiber in their diet, and whole grain does not necessarily give you fiber.

“So to an extent claiming whole grain if it doesn’t have fiber is a tad disingenuous. But our view will be to stick to the science, add fiber to our kid’s products, enhance our products so that we are actually giving consumers what they need.

“But for the whole category I think you are seeing the positives in nutrition play well into the cereal category so I think that will auger well for the category and probably for the main players within it. I don’t see a major issue there to be frank.”

As an advocate for whole grains, Ms. Harriman cautioned against playing whole grain against fiber and vice versa.

“Both fiber and whole grain have an important role in diet,” she said. “There is an overlap, but they are not the same. I say bless both of them.”