Whole grains have proven to be one of the most promising trends in the health and wellness movement. Suppliers have found that whole grains can help create more healthful versions of breads, cereals, pastas and snacks, and shoppers have learned that choosing whole grain products allows them to make a healthy change in their diet without sacrificing flavor.
Studies compiled by the Whole Grains Council, Boston, tell the story. Market research firm Mintel's Menu Insights 2008 study lists whole grains as one of its top five current trends in the restaurant industry. And recent consumer surveys from the International Food Information Council indicate that awareness of whole grains increased 25% from 2005 to 2007. When asked about specific benefits of whole grain products, 72% of respondents associated them with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and 86% with fiber and intestinal health.
The trend is still going strong, according to Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways and the Whole Grains Council. “I think the fad is going to turn out to be that we ate [white bread] for 100 years.”
Alan Hiebert, researcher and analyst for the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, Madison, Wis., agreed. “As I see it, a low-carbohydrate diet turned out to be a fad because it was drastically different from what diet experts had been advocating for many years,” he said. “Substituting whole wheat bread for white bread is something experts have been advocating for years. We now have more whole wheat bread options than we used to have. As artisan breads have become more popular, people are realizing that whole grain breads are not all like the soft wheat sandwich bread they ate as kids.”
Whole grain products have grown in popularity as they've grown in variety and availability, a trend that Hiebert attributed to several factors, including consumer interest in healthier eating; the Food and Drug Administration allowing products with a minimum of 51% whole grain by weight to carry health claims; and the Whole Grains Council promoting the Whole Grain Stamp.
In addition, Hiebert added, awareness has grown as chefs have begun promoting whole grain products on restaurant menus, and as these products have begun appearing on school menus.
“Demand for whole grains is bound to go up if children are exposed to them at an early age,” he said.
Whole grain products are certainly becoming more accessible. There were 2,368 products launched with a whole grain nutrition claim in 2007, a 50% increase over the prior year. And there have been 753 whole grain product launches in 2008 through the end of March, according to the Whole Grains Council. In 2007, these products were led by bakery, with 798 new items; breakfast cereals, with 708; snacks, with 408; and side dishes, with 220.
“What you come back to over and over again is that taste trumps everything,” said Harriman. “Nobody is ever going to hold their nose for long, and eat something just because it's healthy. That's one reason why low-carb died out. Hardly anybody could make a palatable low-carb product. Whole grains are at a different stage now, because so many companies have found out ways to make really good whole grain products. Consumers don't have to choose between good taste and good for them.”
Yet the category's future appears brightest in prepared-food departments, Center Store and supplier-made baked goods. At least a few in-store bakery directors say that after a couple of years of growth, sales of fresh-baked whole grain breads have leveled off.
“I don't know if interest has waned, but it hasn't grown,” said Steve Beaird, bakery director for St. Paul, Minn.-based Kowalski's. “I think what we've found, since we introduced [whole grain breads], is that there is a segment out there that wants it, and supports it, but it's not really growing.”
The category is still stable, and has remained a draw for two years now, he added. And, unlike a lot of trends, those customers that purchase these products have remained loyal.
“There is a segment, that that's what they want, and they buy it, they support it weekly. It's pretty stable. When we introduced it we had pretty steady growth for a year or a year and a half, but it has stabilized at around a quarter of my bread and bun categories.”
The trend Beaird is following now is a little broader.
“What we're seeing is something tied to the bigger picture,” he added. “It's not only just whole grains that customers are demanding, it's more of a push toward natural. Not necessarily organics. It's all tied to people becoming label readers, and they don't want junk in their products. So whether that involves using whole grains, or whether that's not using artificial flavors and colors, or not using partially hydrogenated oils, it's all more tied to that. Whole grains is a piece of that. At first, it was the leading piece of it, but now it's become a piece of the larger puzzle.”
Tammy Kampsula, corporate bakery director for United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, agreed. “The bread category in general has done well since the Atkins diet craze died down,” she said. “But I don't know if it's necessarily just whole grains. All-natural and artisan breads — breads that are good for you — have done well. Whole grains, specifically, aren't growing by leaps and bounds. It's necessary to have some, but it's not like when it first became popular and everyone was asking for them. It's leveled off.”
In fact, if one diet trend has emerged since low-carb dieting took the country by storm a few years ago, it's the concept that simple, sustainable changes can help people lose weight and keep it off. Not surprisingly, most of these diets encourage readers to regularly eat a variety of minimally processed whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and pasta, lean meats, seafood and low-fat dairy.
“Consumers are focusing more on whole foods,” said Harriman. “Individual nutrients, that reductionist approach,” is becoming less popular. It's not just that you need beta carotene or some other micronutrient or vitamin in your diet, it's the whole carrot, she added. “I think we're recognizing more and more that this ‘magic bullet’ approach to nutrition is not what is going to give people good health. It's whole foods, not just the individual nutrients, and the whole diet, the interaction of different foods. It's variety and a range of nutrients.”
Harriman's argument is supported by recent trends in the publishing industry. In addition to books on exercise regimens, the current top 10 bestselling diet books on Amazon.com include “Hungry Girl,” a book focused on simple recipes that make healthier versions of favorite meals and snacks; two books based on the South Beach Diet, which has always encouraged eating a balance of healthy carbohydrates, mono- and poly-unsaturated fats and lean protein; “Eat This Not That,” a book that analyzes the menus at popular restaurants and items in the supermarket to inform readers of simple changes they can make in their selections when they dine out or shop; “Skinny Bitch”, which advocates a strictly vegan diet; and, the “Eat Clean Diet,” which focuses on eating a balance of minimally processed whole foods.
Most shoppers, Harriman acknowledged, don't necessarily know why whole grains are better for them nutritionally, but they have become widely aware of the term in a relatively short time, and still view whole grains as a positive addition to their diets, or a positive choice to make when choosing one product over another.
“A lot of times, consumers tend to know the basic facts,” she said. “If you were to ask 100 shoppers what's better for them, whole grains or [refined grains], I would think 95% of them would say whole grains are better for them. Do they know why they're better? Not necessarily. A lot of studies have linked whole grains to better weight control and satiety. That definitely resonates with consumers. When you start talking about weight control, everybody knows that weight control is an issue, and anything that can help them without forcing them to compromise [on flavor], of course that's going to be a trend.”
For bakeries looking to build sales of better-for-you breads, or any type of fresh-baked bread, Hiebert recommended a consistent approach to product sampling.
“Signage and sampling are the best ways to promote products made with whole grains,” said Hiebert. “You can describe a product until the cows come home, but shoppers won't know if they like it unless they taste it. Sampling has proven to be an effective sales tool for bakery departments. For more information, IDDBA has produced three podcasts to help retailers understand the benefits of whole grains and to help retailers merchandise their whole grain offerings.”
Sampling, along with regularly changing up a store's selection of artisan breads, are key to maintaining excitement in the category, Kampsula agreed.
“We are doing it all day,” she said. “We have a counter built in where our bread displays are, and we have a person that mans that area and offers samples all day long. They are there talking to our guests about our breads, and getting them to try samples with olive oils, different seasonings, garlic — different things to try to cross-promote items from other departments.”
In addition to baking fresh breads in the early morning, United's bakery departments now also do a round of bread-making in the afternoon, around 4 or 5 p.m., to draw in afternoon shoppers with the smells and sights of fresh-baked products.
“It's been really fun — it's created some excitement in our stores,” Kampsula said.
Bakery departments looking for a special opportunity to sample product and educate their shoppers on whole grains and healthy eating might consider the second annual Whole Grains Month in September. Harriman said that the Whole Grains Council is encouraging all of its 194 members to think of special promotions to run during the month, such as coupon offers or special deals that retailers can pass along to their shoppers. If everything goes according to plan, shoppers will once again see the whole grains message reinforced throughout the store.
“We're beating the drum during September to try to reach consumers and tell them that this is the time to try whole grain products if they haven't yet,” Harriman said. “And then they get to the stores and find that this is reflected in all kinds of special deals, and they notice it in their supermarket circulars and so forth — it's reinforcement.”