GRAINS ON A ROLL

Cynical foodies might wonder in what smoky back room was it decided that whole grains would be anointed the first big food trend of 2005. After all, what's the big deal? Whole grains have been around since man began eating.Yet the new year brought a flood of news, polls, recipes and predictions stating that whole grain products would be the "It" food.In reality, the food industry has been preparing

Cynical foodies might wonder in what smoky back room was it decided that whole grains would be anointed the first big food trend of 2005. After all, what's the big deal? Whole grains have been around since man began eating.

Yet the new year brought a flood of news, polls, recipes and predictions stating that whole grain products would be the "It" food.

In reality, the food industry has been preparing consumers for the resurgence of complete-nutrition foodstuffs for some months now. Early drafts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's dietary guidelines provided strong indications that whole grains would likely make the final cut, and manufacturers, associations and allied industry players are well rewarded for catching this type of tidbit as early as possible. Their foresight is paying off, and retailers stand to gain as well.

"As a bakery director, I'm hoping that this catches on," said John Stobierski of Stop & Shop, Quincy, Mass. "It could give bakery, bread, pasta and cereal the shot in the arm we've been looking for ever since low-carb dieting took off. Right now, we're looking at several different whole grain lines, not only our commercial breads, but for our in-store bakery as well."

Some retailers noted that a buzz already appears to be building. "There has definitely been an uptick in customer interest in whole grain foods at Larry's," said Andy Burger, specialty and natural products buyer for Larry's Markets, Kirkland, Wash. Burger added that as more customers discover the values and benefits of whole grains, he expects to see the products continue to grow.

As a group, consumers have been slowly but steadily switching from white breads to wheat, whole grain and artisan breads for several years -- a shift that accelerated during the peak of low-carb dieting, when most regimens encouraged dieters to incorporate some complex carbohydrates at later stages. Whole grains were a perfect choice, and during 2003, white bread unit volume was down 4.7%, while whole grain bread volume was up 4%, according to ACNielsen. Still, white outsold wheat by almost 2 to 1.

The momentum behind this year's whole grain trend goes beyond low-carb diets, and moves qualified products squarely into the general health and wellness arena. Notably, USDA's new dietary guidelines suggest that Americans incorporate at least three daily servings of whole grains into their diets.

Consumer packaged goods manufacturers reviewed drafts of the document and got to work. General Mills and Post both reformulated entire lines of cereals to whole grain-based recipes; Nestle is featuring whole grains in its Lean Cuisine Spa line; and Sara Lee has doubled the number of whole grain breads and bagels it produces, including its new line of "Heart Healthy Plus" whole grain breads. A flood of other whole grain products has been released or reformulated by smaller companies, almost all of which have been remarkably united and on-message, citing research that indicates whole grains may help control weight while reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease and certain cancers.

Additional support came from newly formed or revitalized organizations, such as the Grain Foods Foundation, a coalition of milling and baking industry companies founded last year. This month, the group launched a multimillion-dollar public education campaign on whole grains and breads, just as major retailers began saying that the low-carb craze was waning, and that customers were returning to foods like juice, cereal, potatoes and pasta.

"There were a lot of low-carb products that were rushed to the market that didn't taste good. That's probably what turned a lot of consumers off," Joel Crowder, director of baked foods for Kroger, Cincinnati, and trustee of the Grain Foods Foundation, said in a recent wire report.

In March, several manufacturers will begin using a stamp developed by the Whole Grains Council, a separate group founded by companies like General Mills, Frito-Lay and the American Institute of Baking, to help consumers easily identify foods that are "good" or "excellent" sources of whole grain.

What remains to be seen is how consumers will respond.

"So far, our department has had virtually no customer comment or feedback regarding the new dietary guidelines," said Bill Mihu, bakery director for Schnuck Markets, St. Louis. "I'm not sure that customers are as well informed on the guidelines as we in the industry are, but I think it's still very early."

Mihu said that while Schnucks didn't currently have any new whole grain products in development, the company was watching closely to see how the issue unfolds. In general, however, the industry was caught off guard by the severity of last year's low-carb diet craze. Grain-based food manufacturers were hit the worst, even driving some in the pasta and dough sectors into bankruptcy.

"I would say that so many companies are jumping on the whole grain bandwagon at once because they were all hurt, to one degree or another, by the low-carb trend," said Alan Hiebert, a researcher for the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis. "When an opportunity arose for them to begin to move people away from carbophobia, they seized it. A media blitz from bakery manufacturers, along with the new dietary guidelines, will probably have some impact on consumer behavior."

Staying power is another matter, since lifelong eating habits die hard. If the whole grain pitch resonates with consumers, it clearly would have a positive impact on bakery operations this year, and some retailers predicted whole grains have much more long-term potential than a diet fad because of their universal health appeal.

"I think that whole grains offer a great opportunity for the artisan baker," said Scott Fox, bakery director for Dorothy Lane Markets, Dayton, Ohio. "Consumers are becoming much more knowledgeable about nutrition, and they're starting to understand that refined flours aren't the ideal thing to eat."

Fox said that bakery sales were up 7% last year over 2003 at Dorothy Lane, despite the fact that the chain's from-scratch operations never embraced low-carb dieting. "We are what we are -- a bakery. We want to sell fresh-baked products that taste great, and most of those products are going to have sugar and flour in them."

The company, however, is already betting on the potential of whole grains. Fox said that his bakeries had begun using Ultragrain -- a new whole grain flour developed by ConAgra that emulates the texture and flavor of refined flour -- in some of their recipes. In addition, the company plans to debut at least four 100% whole grain hearth breads by the beginning of March, and possibly create a few whole grain cookies.

"This isn't going to be a fad for a couple of reasons: We're making products that taste good and they're healthy -- your body needs complex carbs," said Fox. "This will be here to stay."

At least for now, the media and marketing coverage should give the segment a boost, noted John Chickery, bakery director for Riesbeck's Markets, St. Clairsville, Ohio. "When huge companies [like Sara Lee and General Mills] put their marketing budgets behind something, it certainly raises awareness," he said.

MEDIA MILL

Rumors abound that the low-carb craze is toast and that breads are on the rise, but buzz doesn't generate itself. The Grain Foods Foundation, a coalition of milling and baking industry companies, this month launched Grains for Life, a multimillion-dollar campaign to educate Americans about the health benefits of whole grains and enriched breads.

The foundation this month plugged bread in a World News Tonight segment with anchor Peter Jennings, and since January has had its pro-grain message featured on more than a dozen regional television news programs and in major papers including the New York Times, the Sacramento Bee, the Wichita Eagle, the Kansas City Star and the Seattle Times, among others.

Although foundation President Judi Adams emphasized that the campaign is meant to play up the positive qualities of bread and not attack low-carb diets, she admits that its timing may have been fortunate. "I think that the media is always looking for something a little controversial, and now, our highlighting the health benefits of bread on the heels of the low-carb diet fad seems controversial."

The foundation certainly has its work cut out for it. A recent Harris Interactive survey of 2,000 American adults found that while 50% of respondents said they "eat bread almost every day," only 12% are aware that breads made with whole grains could prevent health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Furthermore, the low-carb fad has clearly taken a toll on America's perception of breads. Nearly 20% of women respondents aged 35 to 44 felt that bread was unhealthy or fattening, and 24% of all respondents said carbohydrate restriction was a sensible dietary approach.

THE WHOLE TRUTH

Whole grains include wheat, oats, barley, corn, millet, sorghum, rye and rice, and primarily consist of these three components:

- Bran (outer layer): Contains the largest amount of fiber.

- Endosperm (middle layer): Contains mostly protein and carbohydrates, along with small amounts of B vitamins.

- Germ (core): Contains trace minerals, unsaturated fats, B vitamins, antioxidants and phytochemicals.

Source: Wheat Foods Council, Sara Lee Bakery