WHOLE GRAINS: RETURN OF A DIETARY STAPLE

The whole-grain movement was born during a time of drought in the minds of Americans. Bread, rice and pasta were turning to dust on the shelves, while consumers chased the promises of the low-carb lifestyle, which forbade most grains as part of its diet plan.Today, whole grains are a success story that epitomizes the entire whole-health umbrella. Like it says in "America, the Beautiful," it seems

The whole-grain movement was born during a time of drought in the minds of Americans. Bread, rice and pasta were turning to dust on the shelves, while consumers chased the promises of the low-carb lifestyle, which forbade most grains as part of its diet plan.

Today, whole grains are a success story that epitomizes the entire whole-health umbrella. Like it says in "America, the Beautiful," it seems the nation's spacious aisles are filled with amber waves of grain. They're everywhere, and seemingly in every product. It didn't hurt when, last year, the revised U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans specified whole grains as a foundation of any sensible diet.

"Interest has noticeably increased over recent months," said Janine Faber, registered dietitian and healthy living adviser for Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer. "Customers are looking for information on which foods are considered whole grain and how they can incorporate them into their diets."

ACNielsen data indicate that consumers are dishing up whole grains in record numbers. Over the past year alone, dollar sales increased 8.7% (based on the 52 weeks ending Dec. 31, 2005, excluding Wal-Mart Stores), compared to less than 1% in overall growth between 2000 and 2004.

Coincidental timing and convergence of many factors have contributed to this growth. In January 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its latest version of the dietary guidelines, citing strong evidence that linked whole-grain consumption with reduced risk of obesity, diabetes, stroke and other chronic diseases. The agency recommended that half of all grains eaten should be whole grains. It was an ambitious goal at the time, considering average consumption was less than one daily serving and over 30% of Americans reported never eating whole grains.

Disenchantment with low-carb living and bunless burgers may have helped Americans to embrace the recommendations. In the eight weeks following the release, the USDA Economic Research Service found that shoppers purchased 16% more whole-grain cereals and 12% more whole-grain breads.

These reasons don't fully account for the impressive increases seen in whole-grain sales over the past year, said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways Preservation Trust and the Whole Grains Council.

"Other foods, like beans and fruits, were also recommended as part of the guidelines and have not skyrocketed the way whole grains have," she said. "There is something else going on - the Whole Grains Council and its members are really the cheerleaders and facilitators who are doing the duty of getting more interesting whole-grain products out there and helping consumers to find them."

No longer limited to cereals, breads and pasta, whole grains are penetrating the market and gaining ground where only refined grains once tread. Cookies, snack foods and even frozen entrees are leading the way with some areas seeing sales increases of over 1,000% in the past year, according to ACNielsen.

Established whole-grain categories are also realizing gains. As a brand, Nature's Path is growing at 23.5%, almost double that of the category, according to Maria Emmer-Agnes, director of marketing. "We have 12 of the top 100-selling cereals, 10 of which are whole grain, with an average growth rate of 46.68%."

Alongside natural and organic brands, mainstream manufacturers are extending product lines with whole-grain varieties. Fig Newtons, Ritz crackers and Chips Ahoy! cookies are among the contenders hoping to win the affections of today's whole-grains consumer. General Mills made the switch and is using whole grains in all of their cereals, including Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms. Most white sandwich bread is also available today in a whole-grain version.

Increased choices may improve consumer acceptance, but not all individuals will be easily swayed. For those consumers, food manufacturers have developed whole white wheat flour that can be used in cereals, pasta and breads, including Sara Lee's "Soft and Smooth" and Wonder Bread's "White Bread Fans." Instead of the traditional red wheat, whole white wheat is milled into super fine particles, giving products the color, taste and texture similar to that of refined white flour products while maintaining the nutritional benefits of a whole grain.

This recent influx of new products comes as the Whole Grain Council simplified its stamp program to make it easier for consumers. Now, each of the three stamps will now state the number of grams of whole grain ingredients are included in each serving of a product. The updated stamps, released late last month, remind shoppers of the 48-gram minimum per day that's recommended under the dietary guidelines.

"Consumers are still a bit confused about which foods are whole grains, but our job is to educate them," Faber said.

In February, the Food and Drug Administration itself took a big step toward standardization of whole-grain labeling by releasing a draft document defining the grains and clarifying which products can be classified as such. Simply stated, a whole grain contains all three of its edible parts - the germ, bran and endosperm. Specific guidelines for claiming a product as a "good" or "excellent" source were not released, but factual statements such as contains "5 grams of whole grains" or "100% whole grain" are allowable, an aspect that meshes well with the grain council's new stamps.

FDA also allows products containing 51% or more whole grains with a certain level of fiber - which varies based on serving size - to carry a health claim stating, "Diets rich in whole-grain foods and low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers."

Based on the FDA's current approach, even products containing minimal amounts of whole grains can make factual statements regarding content. This draws attention to products, but the industry will have to be careful not to mislead consumers who are unaware of the recommendations.

It's hoped manufacturers participating in the stamp program will help specify whole grain content. Currently, the stamp series identifies products at three levels: "Good" (half serving), "Excellent" or "100% excellent" (both containing a whole serving of whole grains based on USDA recommendations). Although the FDA has not approved the stamp, it is "an essential consumer tool, especially in light of the recent FDA guidance," Harriman said.

The stamp can be found on nearly 600 products from Alvarado Street breads to Quaker Oats and Snyder's of Hanover pretzels. "Our goal is to make it easy for consumers," Harriman said. "There are many good whole-grain products that are not carrying the stamp, but are sometimes difficult to identify. If they look for the black and gold stamp, this is one way to help them do that."

Faber uses the stamp at Meijer stores to educate customers and agreed that the stamps help to eliminate some of the confusion and make it easier for customers to identify a whole-grain product.

"Customers always think of bread but forget about nontraditional whole-grain products," Faber said. "If a consumer is not familiar with a product, doesn't know how to prepare it or know how it tastes, they probably won't buy it."

Using the website, in-store demonstrations and a shelf-labeling program, Meijer's customers are learning to look for whole grains on the shelf, she said.

What Are Whole Grains?

A whole grain is made up of the bran, germ and endosperm. Much of this has been lost in the past, when conventional manufacturing removed the bran and germ, along with much of the protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Whole grains may be eaten whole, cracked, split or ground into flour that is used to make breads, cereals and other processed foods.

For most adults, three to five servings of whole-grain foods will meet the current U.S. Department of Agriculture recommendations. As long as they are eaten in their whole form, whole grains include: wheat, rye, oats, sorghum, spelt, amaranth, buckwheat, teff, corn (or popcorn), triticale, barley, brown rice, quinoa and millet.