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ANY WAY IT'S SLICED, today's bread aisle is a whole new loaf. Annual sales have risen to more than $16 billion, and by some estimates that number could reach more than $18 billion within the next four years. Manufacturers have expanded their lines to include healthful, value-added options that would've been unthinkable just a couple years ago. They're also beginning to dabble more in specialty and

ANY WAY IT'S SLICED, today's bread aisle is a whole new loaf.

Annual sales have risen to more than $16 billion, and by some estimates that number could reach more than $18 billion within the next four years. Manufacturers have expanded their lines to include healthful, value-added options that would've been unthinkable just a couple years ago. They're also beginning to dabble more in specialty and ethnic varieties, like pita, naan and English muffins.

There's one trend that stands out above the rest, though, and truly demonstrates bread's rebound from the clutches of earlier low-carb fads: the universal demand for whole grains.

“Across the board in the bread aisle, there are a lot more options for getting your whole grains and your whole wheat,” said Leah McGrath, corporate dietitian with Asheville, N.C.-based Ingles Markets.

Brought to many people's attention by the strong endorsement they received in 2005's updated Dietary Guidelines, whole grains have been praised in study after study for improving cardiovascular health, weight management and more.

For manufacturers and retailers, there's no better opportunity to incorporate whole grains than in packaged bread, where advances in food technology have expanded the segment in addition to making products more palatable. Nielsen Co. data shows that bread companies have released more than 100 new varieties of whole grain breads each year since 2005.

“Bread did get that downside effect from the low-carb trend,” said Carrie Taylor, corporate dietitian with Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass. “But now is the chance for companies to really shine and show that bread can be an excellent source of whole grains.”

People are getting the message, it seems. According to the trend-tracking firm Mintel, three-quarters of households report buying whole grain breads, and 55% of consumers say they're eating more bread that makes whole wheat or whole grain claims.

Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies with the Whole Grains Council, explained that whole grains are playing out in numerous ways for brands like Sarah Lee, Arnold, Wonder, Pepperidge Farm and others. One of the most popular innovations so far, she said, has been the introduction of whole white wheat, an albino variety that has a smoother, milder flavor than regular whole wheat. For a generation of consumers brought up on white bread, it's seen as more palatable than the dense, earthy slices that dominate the category. Pepperidge Farm, for example, carries a line of what it calls Whole Grain White.

At Big Y, bread made from whole white wheat is a popular choice for customers.

“Anything that has a mouth feel that's lighter, similar to the traditional white-flour-based products, does better for consumer appreciation in terms of buying it and coming back to it,” said Taylor. “Because not only do they think, ‘I'm eating whole grains,’ but they're thinking, ‘I'm eating whole grains and it tastes good.’”

This ability to tone down the toothiness of whole grain breads has allowed manufacturers to expand into different varieties. Popular staples like bagels, and hot dog and hamburger buns are starting to tout whole grain benefits, as are the burgeoning segment of ethnic breads like pita and naan. Fabulous Flats, which sells to Whole Foods Market, Wegmans Food Markets and other chains, recently introduced a line of whole grain naan.

“Consumers are looking for something of a middle ground, something that doesn't compromise on taste but that still has all the health benefits,” said Garima Goel Lal, senior research analyst with Mintel.

Bread companies haven't forgotten about long-time devotees to whole grains, however. For them, there's an emerging crop of value-added whole wheat breads, including varieties with added fiber, omega-3s and more. Roman Meal, for example, carries a “Double Fiber” bread made from whole wheat.

Ingles, which carries a popular store-brand 100% whole wheat flour bread, sources several of these value-added whole grain loaves.

“Now we're not only seeing whole wheats, but we're seeing what I would call the ‘bionic whole wheats,’” said McGrath. “You've got the ones with whole wheat and flax or omega-3s, or that have extra fiber. They're really beefed-up whole wheat breads.”

That whole grains are taking root throughout the bread aisle is all too apparent for consumers. What's not so easy for them to distinguish, however, are the varying amounts of whole grains these breads contain. That's because companies can claim their bread to be whole grain, even if only half of the grains in each loaf are actually whole. This has proved to be a profitable move for many manufacturers, who can take advantage of whole grains' selling power without fully committing in terms of production costs and taste.

But to dietitians like Mary Choate of Co-op Food Stores in Hanover, N.H., all this accomplishes is consumer confusion. She said people are looking to fulfill their daily servings of whole grains, but they're either buying the wrong breads or aren't sure which whole grain breads will do the job.

To help her customers, Choate teaches a class on identifying and incorporating whole grains into everyday diets. Like many nutrition experts, she recommends buying breads labeled as “100% Whole Grains” or whole wheat, and avoiding breads with the word “enriched” in the ingredients list.

“If companies use the whole grains stamp [from the Whole Grains Council] or specify 100% whole grains, that's great,” said Choate. “What's troubling is if they say ‘whole wheat,’ and it's not 100% whole wheat, or even 51% whole wheat.”

Indeed, there seems to be a more concerted effort by health care professionals and watchdog groups to hold whole grain products to a higher standard. In December, the Center for Science in the Public Interest notified Sara Lee of its intention to sue over the company's “Soft and Smooth” whole grain white bread, which contains mostly enriched white flour instead of whole wheat flour. Michael Jacobsen, the center's executive director, called Sara Lee's marketing “a whole grain whitewash.” In response, Sara Lee stated that Soft and Smooth is a transitional or in-between variety, much like skim milk is to dairy drinkers.

To Harriman of the Whole Grains Council, a transition is unnecessary given what food science has done with whole grains.

“Consumers are really enjoying this whole white wheat,” she said. “[Sara Lee] didn't have to dumb it down for them.”

In light of this increasing awareness regarding whole grain content, manufacturers are reformulating and emphasizing their 100% whole grain lines. One example is Petaluma, Calif.-based Alvarado Street Bakery, which for the past 28 years has made sprouted whole wheat bread from organic whole grains.

“About three years ago, we started emphasizing the 100% whole grains aspect,” said company President Michael Girkout. “We were telling people that we made sprouted bread, but people didn't really associate that with whole grains. It's an important message, and most people are looking for that.”

Whole grain bread — in all guises — will continue to sell, experts say. According to Goel Lal of Mintel, this is because of whole grains' healthful profile, which includes the cardiovascular boost that many Baby Boomers are looking for. That, she said, fits right in with a society that's moving past simple dieting.

“Consumers don't just want to manage their weight,” said Goel Lal. “They want to manage heart disease and other things.”

Manufacturers like Flowers Foods certainly don't plan on slowing down. The company, which owns several bakery brands, plans to introduce a line of whole grain breakfast breads this April under its Nature's Own label, according to Janice Anderson, vice president of marketing.

It's easy just to call this a growth trend, or perhaps the latest fad, said Harriman. But considering that whole grains have been around for thousands of years, it might be more accurate to say whole grains' popularity right now is a rebirth.

“It's people returning to their senses, if you ask me.”

Good Advice

  • Go global! Whole grains now can be found in pita, naan and other ethnic bread varieties.
  • Focus on 100% whole wheat varieties. Nutrition experts are turning consumers on to this healthful formulation.
  • Educate the consumer. Many people don't know what whole grains are or how much they need to eat.
  • Sampling can remove taste and texture stigmas attached to whole grain breads.