Sprouted, ancient and other whole grains have had a transformative effect on the commercial bread aisle.
Once categorized as the ultimate comfort food, bread is now a vehicle for nutrition as taste innovations and new forms of whole grain make it easy for health-conscious Americans to heed federal guidance and make half their grains whole.
“Whole grains are symbolic of real food and quality, in particular fiber, vitamins and minerals,” Melissa Abbott, director of culinary insights with The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., told SN.
“Post the low-carb Atkins era, fiber in bread became much more significant and acceptable to the consumer, especially with the increased flavor profile that many whole grain breads offer today. This was not the case even a decade ago, when whole grain breads were perceived as akin to cardboard.”
Indeed, during the 20th century consumers were accustomed to the smooth mouth feel of refined grains, which get their texture through a milling process that strips out the bran and germ, along with important nutrients like fiber.
Before the days of refrigeration and high-efficiency supply chains, milling was a matter of practicality. “This wasn’t done to ruin people’s nutrition,” explained Bashas’  corporate dietitian Barbara Ruhs, “but for shelf life and stability, way back when.”
In the 1940s, when it began examining World War II recruits, the U.S. government realized that refined grains were contributing to widespread nutrient deficiencies, so it ordered that white flour be enriched with some of the nutrients lost during refining such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and iron.
Since 1998, folic acid has been added to most enriched flours to cut down on birth defects. But enriched grains still hadn’t recovered their fiber.
Manufacturers dabbled in whole wheat to fill the nutritive gap, but struggled to create fiber-rich loaves that were palatable.
“When bakeries started with whole grain breads they felt the need to use a lot of additives to get a loaf that met their quality standards for rising and so forth. Every year the bakers get more experienced with whole grains and they’re weaning themselves away from extra ingredients,” explained Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Whole Grains Council, whose stamp is used on items containing at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving.
Americans should consume at least 48 grams of whole grains each day. More than 1,300 breads and rolls use the stamp.
The back to basics approach has given way to a plethora of bread types, with Mintel’s Global New Products Database counting close to 2,600 launches during the past five years. Most have some kind of better-for-you component.
Whole wheat is the most popular bread, followed by white and multigrain, according to Experian Simmons NCS data cited by Mintel in its bread report, released last November.
When looking specifically at health attributes, whole wheat, whole grain and high fiber claims matter most to roughly two-thirds of respondents, according to a Mintel poll of primary shoppers and those who share the responsibility.
At Big Y Foods , Springfield, Mass., whole grain breads and low-calorie thin sandwich rolls, known as deli rounds or flats, sell well, while white bread, aided in part by the addition of whole grains to formulations that have the texture of white bread, are “hanging on,” said Grocery Sales Manager Mark Rice.
“We’re fortunate because bread sales in our market and nationally were declining last year but we’ve seen some increases,” he said.
As sugar-laden loaves like cinnamon raisin fall by the wayside, Topco’s natural private-label Full Circle bread in 100% Whole Wheat, Multigrain and Wheat with Flax lead the charge. “Private labels continue to gain momentum,” said Rice.
Indeed, while overall dollar sales inched marginally with fresh bread and rolls up 0.8% in the food channel during the 52 weeks ending Jan. 22, share leading private labels — up 4.3% — posted more significant gains, according to SymphonyIRI Group.
The 2011 price outlook from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, cited in Mintel’s Bread report, holds a cost-related clue: Bread prices surged 8.6% in 2011 vs. the prior year.
Mintel’s poll finds that nearly 60% of consumers have switched to private-label bread, buy name brands that cost less or shop at less expensive retailers. One-third buy bread more often or exclusively when it’s on sale.
Consumers of the staple have many low-cost options. Last year, store-brand bread accounted for some 30% of introductions compared to 17.6% in 2006. Private labels made up 23% of 2011 sales, and nearly $3 billion in revenue in food, drug and mass channels combined, according to Mintel.
Maggie Moon, nutritionist for the New York-based online retailer FreshDirect, told SN that value is not just measured by price, but the nutritional punch packed into each calorie.
“[Consumers] are looking to bread as a way to get nutrition,” she said. “We’re getting more per calorie with whole grains and nuts and seeds and sprouted grains and omega-3s from flax.”
Inventive takes on traditional bread have paved the way for less processed recipes such as those that use sprouted grains, which “represent the next level of minimal processing beyond local and organic,” said Abbott. “We’re seeing sprouted breads, bagels, rolls, cereals and even pasta.”
Whereas wheat kernels are ground into whole-wheat flour to make whole-wheat bread, the process is a bit different with sprouted wheat or any other sprouted grain. First, wheat kernels are allowed to sprout and rather than grinding them into flour, they’re ground up and baked into bread.
While there is no evidence that sprouted grain products have a health edge over unsprouted, as a whole grain, they’re nutritionally superior to refined grains, explained Moon.
“The take home message is: The same benefits you get from sprouted grains are the same great benefits you get from an unsprouted — it’s just another great whole grain option,” she said.
For shoppers looking to maximize dietary fiber, Bashas’ Ruhs recommends Food for Life’s Ezekial bread, made from freshly sprouted organic grains. Named for Ezekial chapter 4, verse 9, the bread is inspired by the scripture verse “take also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans and lentils, and millet and spelt and put them in one vessel, and make bread of it.”
Loaves made with gluten-free grains are also widening taste horizons beyond run of the mill whole wheat.
“We’ve seen consumers who are non-celiac expand their grain scope towards full-flavored, robust, heirloom grains, including rye, spelt, emmer and buckwheat,” Abbott said.
Harriman noted that of the 14 whole grains eaten in our society, just four must be avoided by celiac sufferers. But in an effort to stay well, many unnecessarily shun all grains. When trolling the gluten-free section, Harriman advises choosing breads with the Whole Grain Stamp.
“A lot of people think gluten-free means grain-free but it doesn’t,” she said. “Most grains are just great for people who have some type of gluten problem.”
Harriman added that a growing number of gluten-free breads and bread mixes are using the Whole Grain Stamp. “In general, gluten-free breads don’t have as long a shelf life. They’re pretty fragile so we see a lot of mixes encouraging consumers to make bread themselves,” she said.
To extend viability, chains like Big Y sell the bulk of gluten-free breads in the frozen food section, said Rice. The exception is a gluten-free product called Ener G, whose long shelf life supports placement in the commercial bread aisle. “It’s a growing segment and not just for celiacs,” Rice said.
There are smart options for calorie-conscious shoppers too, said Ruhs, who suggests Nature’s Own Whole Grain Sandwich Rounds to folks who are concerned with weight. “It’s a great all-natural choice, loaded with [20 grams of] whole grains, dietary fiber and a caloric bargain — only 100 calories per serving,” she said.
Thin products like these may also appeal to followers of the Paleo Diet. Short for Paleolithic, the diet is a modern nutrition plan based on an ancient diet of wild plants and animals that species consumed during the Paleolithic era. Though grains are discouraged, sandwich rounds could make their way into followers’ carts. “The Paleo diet trend has given rise to a new awareness in limiting refined starch consumption, but as a culture we love our bread-like vehicles and can only go without for so long,” Abbott said.
With the tagline “Better than sliced bread,” Flatout Bread is another product endorsed by Ruhs. Thicker than a tortilla but not as heavy as sliced bread, it’s low in calories, full of dietary fiber and has the versatility of a wrap.
Sara Lee’s Soft and Smooth Whole Grain White bread is a good gateway option for traditionalists and finicky kids who long for the familiar texture of white, added Ruhs.
Baby Boomers who’ve been advised to switch to whole grain bread to minimize risk of stroke, heart disease and better manage weight are trying products like these. Ruhs teaches them to separate healthy options from imposters by identifying the world “whole” in the first few ingredients.
“There is greater awareness about whole grains, with consumers really wanting a verifiable source versus labeling lingo,” she said.
Whole Grain Train: Sampling Day Set
Giant Eagle , Wal-Mart Stores  and ShopRite  are just some of the retailers that will join McDonalds, Arby’s and other food service outlets in the Whole Grains Council’s first-ever National Whole Grain Sampling Day, April 4.
“This will be an opportunity for people to try new whole grain products wherever they go whether it be their cafeteria, restaurant — wherever people see the Whole Grain Stamp,” said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Whole Grains Council, whose stamp appears on products containing at least 8 grams per serving of whole grain.
Some consumers won’t even have to leave home since online grocer FreshDirect has expressed interest in distributing samples as part of the event.
The Internet-based retailer is selective about the “carts” intercepted pre-delivery, so it doesn’t require the same volume of samples as a brick-and-mortar store.
“We’re not in the aisle where we might encounter the random passerby, but we have a lot of opportunity to be more targeted so that the right sample reaches the right customer,” explained FreshDirect nutritionist Maggie Moon.
FreshDirect might include a whole grain bread sample in an order that includes a loaf of refined grain bread. “If we know they’re already bread eaters it will be an easy upgrade,” said Moon.
The system analyzes cart history to ensure that complimentary items don’t interfere with dietary restrictions. A shopper who can’t tolerate gluten, for example, might find a quinoa-based pasta beside the white-rice based pasta they regularly buy.
“Because we’re able to reach the right customer, we see a unit movement lift for [participating] brands,” said Moon.
The Whole List
When consumed in a form including the bran, germ and endosperm the following are generally accepted whole grain foods and flours.
• Oats, including oatmeal
• Rice, both brown rice and colored rice
• Wheat, including spelt, emmer, faro, einkorn, kamut, durum varieties and forms such as bulgur, cracked wheat and wheatberries
• Wild Rice
Source: Whole Grains Council