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GOING WITH THE GRAIN

A health-oriented shopper picks up a box of "wheat" crackers, looks at the ingredients and sees wheat flour listed first. Perfect, she thinks. Eating a few of the crackers will give her a serving of highly recommended whole grains. Right?Wrong, says Janet Tenney, manager of nutrition programs, Giant Food, Landover, Md."There's a lot of confusion about what whole grains are," said Tenney, noting that

A health-oriented shopper picks up a box of "wheat" crackers, looks at the ingredients and sees wheat flour listed first. Perfect, she thinks. Eating a few of the crackers will give her a serving of highly recommended whole grains. Right?

Wrong, says Janet Tenney, manager of nutrition programs, Giant Food, Landover, Md.

"There's a lot of confusion about what whole grains are," said Tenney, noting that wheat flour is actually a refined grain, not a whole grain.

This kind of scenario could be all too common as consumers increasingly seek out whole-grain foods in response to the government's 2005 dietary guidelines. To meet the daily fiber objective, the guidelines say, whole grains should account for three of the six recommended daily grain servings.

Packed with phytochemicals, antioxidants, magnesium and fiber, whole grains can help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol, cancer, diabetes and obesity. Last year, 478 new whole-grain products were introduced in U.S. supermarkets, up from 221 in 2003, according to research firm Mintel International Group, Chicago. In the first half of this year, 255 new items hit the market.

While people are starting to understand the health benefits of whole grains, many still don't know what they are. "They're not sure what to look for on the product package," Tenney said.

First, they should analyze the ingredient list. Whole grains contain all of the three parts of the seed or kernel of the plant, making them high in antioxidants, B vitamins and fiber. A food is truly whole grain if whole wheat, whole-grain corn, whole oats or brown rice is the first ingredient.

Refined grains, by comparison, have the bran and germ removed, thereby reducing the amount of protein and nutrients. Along with wheat flour, they include unbleached flour, enriched flour, durum wheat and multigrain.

To help customers make sense of it all, supermarkets have launched consumer-education programs that include radio ads, shelf signs and newsletters.

Giant and Stop & Shop, Quincy, Mass., both Ahold-owned companies, are in the process of rolling out in-store signs reading "Make Half Your Grains Whole." The signs encourage people to eat whole grains, stressing that whole grains, brown rice or oatmeal should be the first ingredient listed on the package. The signs are already posted in the bakery and are scheduled to roll out in the center of the store within the next few weeks.

Giant is also using other tools. On its Web site, a "Healthy Shopping Guide" brochure emphasizes the nutrition benefits of whole grains. It also explains that whole wheat, oatmeal, brown rice and wild rice are all whole grains that include not only the starchy part of the grain, but also the germ and bran.

Along with supermarkets, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may get involved in product-packaging terms. Acting FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford has said the agency wants to define the term "whole grain," while the FDA's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition Center is reviewing a petition from General Mills asking the FDA to develop definitions of "good source" and "excellent source" of whole grains, he said.

"We believe this is an important component of our strategy to provide consumers with the tools they need to lead healthier lives through better nutrition," Crawford said, speaking at a health summit in May. The FDA currently allows food companies to use statements such as "whole grain" or "multi-grain" on packaging if all of the grain ingredients are whole grain.

Whole-grain stan-dards will help clarify the issue, but food retailers need to remain proactive in terms of consumer education, supermarket nutrition officials told SN.

Bea James, senior whole health manager at Lund Food Holdings, Edina, Minn., is trying to do that by creating two-minute radio ads that address the topic of whole grains. The ads were scheduled to air within the next few weeks as part of a Lund radio nutrition series.

The retailer, which operates stores under the Lunds and Byerly's banners, also is developing a nutrition program to help customers create a diet that helps them eat the recommended number of portions of each food group.

K-VA-T Food Stores, Abingdon, Va., is emphasizing whole grains in the debut issue of "Fresh! Connections," a new quarterly newsletter from the retailer's Food City stores. The issue came out in April and runs through this month.

Available in stores and at the retailer's Web site, the publication promotes the benefits of fiber, whole grains and complex carbohydrates. The four-page issue also includes $1 coupons for Zesta whole-wheat crackers, General Mills whole-grain Total, Kellogg's Raisin Bran and Sara Lee 100% whole-wheat bread. In-store shelf tags highlight categories that contain products rich in whole grains.

The purpose of the newsletter is to help Food City shoppers make informed food decisions, said Terry VanHuss, Food City's corporate home economist. "Consumers are looking to supermarkets for information," she said.

It's understandable, especially now that more and more whole-grain products are hitting supermarket shelves. Among recent introductions: General Mills' Big G cereals now contain whole grains; Kellogg launched Special K Fruit and Yogurt, a cereal made with whole grains; and Pepperidge Farm rolled out a new whole-grain line that includes croutons, frozen breads and crackers. Even Interstate Bakeries Corp.'s Wonder has jumped on the trend, introducing "White Bread Fans 100% Whole Grain," whole-grain bread that is said to have the mild flavor and soft feel of white bread.

Packaged baked goods experienced the most new-product growth in 2004, accounting for 183 introductions, up from 62 in 2003, according to Mintel. Lynn Dornblaser, Mintel's director of consulting services, predicts more activity in the area, possibly from major cookie companies.

"If a consumer is going to buy cookies anyway, they're likely to choose a brand that is made with whole grains, provided it tastes good," she said.

James of Lund Food Holdings, however, would prefer that people consume 100% whole-grain foods, such as brown rice and oatmeal, instead of a cookie that has whole grains as an ingredient.

As it stands, a food product must contain 51% or more whole-grain ingredients to be considered whole grain.

"That means that half the product can be whole grain and the other half can be refined ingredients, which can compromise nutrition," she said.

It's Raining Grains

Top 5 Whole-Grain Categories (Based on Product Introductions*)

Baked goods account for the bulk of new whole-grain products in U.S. supermarkets

Category: Number of Product Launches 2003; 2004; 2005**

1. Baked goods (includes bread, cookies, cakes and crackers): 62; 183; 72

2. Breakfast cereal: 70; 78; 60

3. Snacks (includes food bars and salty snacks): 29; 79; 41

4. Side dishes: 16; 39; 32

5. Meals (includes pasta and frozen entrees): 11; 43; 20

* Excluding relaunched or relabeled products

** January to June 2005

Source: Mintel's Global New Products Database