People are starting to recognize the importance of getting more whole grains in their diet, but many still don't know what they are or how to identify them on packaging.
"Made with whole grain," along with "low in fat," headed the list of nutritional claims people seek, according to a recent consumer study by Opinion Dynamics Corp. in Cambridge, Mass. Indeed, brown rice, bread and pasta sales have started to recover as the low-carb craze that preached carb denial has waned.
There are more products to choose from now. In 2004, 478 new whole-grain products were introduced in U.S. supermarkets, up from 221 the year before, according to Mintel International Group, Chicago. In the first half of this year, 255 new items hit the market.
Still, many consumers aren't eating as much whole grain as they think, said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways Preservation Trust, the Boston-based food-issues think tank that created the Whole Grains Council and the whole grain stamps that are increasingly appearing on food packages.
"There's a real gap in consumers' understanding of whole grains," she said.
To educate about and promote whole-grain consumption, supermarkets have launched consumer-education programs that use radio ads, shelf signs, online sites and newsletters.
To see how they're doing, SN sent three reporters to three geographically diverse stores in October. We chose three that had nutritionists/dietitians who were accessible to the public, in person or by phone or e-mail.
Posing as undercover shoppers, the reporters evaluated the stores in terms of their knowledge, merchandising, promotion and educational efforts of and around whole grains. We asked the expert or in-store associate why whole grains are important, how much we should be eating, how to read labels for whole-grain content and how to find whole-grain products in the store. We also visited stores to see how plentiful those products were and how easily they were found.
We found associates for the most part to be helpful and knowledgeable. In-store literature and signage were sparse, though, as retailers tended to let products speak for themselves.
KING KULLEN, Bethpage, N.Y.
COMMACK, N.Y. -- King Kullen Grocery made whole grains easy to find at a unit here, thanks to its store-within-a-store merchandising approach and a helpful registered dietitian.
The 49-store, family-owned retailer's dietitian is accessible via a toll-free consumer hotline from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. Dietitian Layne Lieberman was available when SN called three weeks ago. In addition to answering questions, she also referred SN to the King Kullen nutrition newsletter, the government's new food pyramid and other information sources.
Lieberman explained that whole grains are packed with fiber, which helps prevent certain cancers, heart disease and other ailments, and noted that they're high in iron, B vitamins and trace minerals.
The food pyramid recommends that an adult female get at least six daily servings of grains, three of which should be whole grains. SN asked Lieberman to define a serving size. She said it typically represents a half-cup of rice or pasta, which contains about 80 to 100 calories, while cautioning that calorie counts will vary depending on how a product is made.
"For some whole-grain cereals, there are 80 calories in a 1/4 cup; others, 1/3 cup," she said.
Lieberman stressed the value of eating a variety of whole grains in addition to whole wheat, such as polenta, corn meal, brown rice, oats and barley. She mentioned that King Kullen carries a pasta made from quinoa, a whole grain that has as much zinc and protein as meat.
Lieberman said that the first item in an ingredient list should be a whole grain. SN read off a list of several ingredients and asked if they were whole grains. In answering, Lieberman explained the specific benefits of certain ingredients. In the case of wheat germ, for example, she said it's the part of the grain that's highest in vitamin E.
Asked for recommendations for a 5-year-old's lunchbox, Lieberman suggested Health Valley and Kame crackers, based on their nutritional value and taste, as well as low-fat Triscuits. She added that the government just added a children's section to its food pyramid Web site, www.mypyramid.gov.
Lieberman said most whole-grain products are in the Wild by Nature natural and organic department of the store near the SN reporter's home. (King Kullen carries natural and organics in all its stores, but has Wild By Nature stores-within-a-store at three units, according to its Web site. It also operates two freestanding Wild by Nature stores.)
The Wild by Nature department is set off with a large overhanging sign and wooden shelving. In addition to dry grocery, the department carries fresh, frozens and health and beauty care products.
Dry grocery includes a 4-foot cereal/breakfast section with such whole-grain products as Mother's wheat germ, Mother's whole-grain barley, Kashi whole-grain pilaf and Old Wessex oatmeal.
There's a 12-foot pasta/sauce section with items like Hodgson Mill whole-wheat spaghetti and Vita Spelt whole-grain pasta. On the day of SN's visit, various sizes of Hodgson Mill pastas were on sale for $3 for two. SN also found Ancient Quinoa Harvest-brand corn-quinoa blend.
Whole-grain products were found in the mainstream dry grocery aisles as well. In the cookie/ cracker aisle, for instance, were Carr's whole-wheat crackers.
HAGGEN, Bellingham, Wash.
LAKE STEVENS, Wash. (FNS) -- Haggen, a 15-unit upscale independent in the Northwest, takes a whole-store approach to whole-grain merchandising. At its store here north of Seattle, whole-grain products are integrated in their respective categories and in the unit's store-within-a-store Whole Health Boutique, with the packaging being relied on to provide promotional punch.
When SN visited the store, it found two whole-grain cereals from General Mills and Post displayed on an endcap of the cereal aisle and offered at a price break of two for $7 using a frequent shopper card ($4.79 off). In the aisle, whole-grain cereals were integrated with conventional counterparts, but segregated by manufacturer.
On-package information, including the Whole Grains Council's whole-grain stamps and testaments of dietary fiber, identified whole-grain products within the 12 running feet of cereal space. Same for the cookie, cracker and snack sets.
Haggen's Full Circle brand, from Topco Associates, was spotlighted with shelf talkers that day. Many on-package descriptions of items, including wheat squares and some cereals, made claims of dietary fiber and "no chemicals, fertilizers or pesticides."
Haggen's Web site provides an e-mail address to which consumers can send health and nutrition questions for the chain's pharmacist or registered dietitian. SN e-mailed questions about identifying wholegrain products and recommended consumption. Jan Kincaid Rystrom, registered dietitian, replied in less than a half-hour. (SN didn't receive her response the first time but promptly got a reply to a second request.)
"In general, whole grains are more healthful because they have more nutrients, more fiber (important for lowering cholesterol), and are digested and absorbed slowly so your blood glucose stays more level," Rystrom wrote.
One way to judge the quality of a whole-grain food is to look for the fiber content on the food nutrition facts label under total carbohydrate, Rystrom wrote. She suggested finding breads with at least 3 grams of fiber and breakfast cereal with at least 5 grams per serving, such as Silver Hills and Healthy Way breads and Optimum cereal.
Rystrom didn't answer SN's questions about the availability of whole-grain products or literature in the store. Once there, though, a customer care associate took SN's reporter to the Whole Health Boutique, where she pointed out a handful of items rich in whole grains. She also demonstrated how to use the unit's Health Notes kiosk, and she directed the reporter to the department's learning center, where books and magazines are sold.
In the boutique, which offers natural and organic frozen, dry and refrigerated foods and nonfoods with environmental claims, organic offerings were de rigueur in the packaged and bulk foods assortments. There was no signage calling out product attributes, except for the shelf talkers highlighting the Full Circle products.
In the service bakery on the day of SN's spot check, four "heart healthy" signature store-brand breads were presented. On-shelf signage touted each item's healthful attributes.
DOROTHY LANE MARKET, Dayton, Ohio
OAKWOOD, Ohio -- Dorothy Lane Market has three locations, all in the Dayton area, two of which have in-store healthy living departments. Staffed with nutritionists, these departments offer a wide variety of natural products, some of which include whole grains. Like King Kullen and Haggen, Dorothy Lane also integrates whole-grain products alongside their mainstream counterparts.
The independent, upscale retailer's Web site lists contact information for the two nutritionists. SN e-mailed one of them, Lori Kelch, nutritionist at the Washington Square location, asking for more information on whole-grain products. She replied in less than an hour.
"Whole grains are important because they maintain the germ, where most of the vitamins and minerals are, as well as the bran, which is fiber," Kelch wrote. "According to the new dietary guidelines, you should have about six servings of grain daily, three of which should be whole grain."
SN asked Kelch how to identify whole-grain products. Her response: "The problem with most packaged grain products is that they are enriched, which means that the germ and bran are stripped away and synthetic nutrients are added back in to give the product some nutrition. You can buy the grains themselves, like whole wheat, brown rice, whole oats, or look for 'whole...' as the first ingredient on the [nutrition] label."
At the chain's location here the week of Oct. 3, SN found no store signage calling out whole-grain products. Most labels stated if the product contained whole grains, however.
The Oakwood location didn't have an in-store nutritionist, but several associates were able to point out whole-grain products in their respective aisles. SN asked one of the associates if the store had any literature on whole grains. She said no, but she suggested contacting one of the nutritionists at the other two locations.
The Oakwood store contained plenty of cereals, pastas, bread, crackers and rice that were labeled as whole grain. Out of roughly 30 cereal products, 14 made whole-grain packaging claims. Two out of 13 pasta products were labeled as whole-grain. In the bread category, eight of 25 products were whole-grain. Seven of 20 cracker products contained whole grain, as did three of seven rice products.