A plethora of surveys support consumers’ positive attitudes toward whole grains and whole-grain foods.

Make (at least) half your grains whole.” That is what the 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommend--a mandate that is creating changes to school lunches, supermarket shelves and even fast-food menus. Whole grains are here to stay, so it is useful for everyone involved in the food business to understand what whole grains are, what their health benefits are, what standards and government policies affect them, and--most important of all--what consumers’ attitudes are toward whole grains.

Whole Grains Defined and Health Benefits
A whole grain includes all three edible parts of the original grain: the fiber-rich outer bran layer, the starchy endosperm and the germ. As long as all three of these parts are still present in their original proportions and all nutrients retained, the grain kernel can be cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded, cooked or otherwise processed and still be considered a “whole grain.”

Although USDA data shows that wheat comprises over 70% of the grain consumed in the U.S., a wide variety of grains are now available on the market. All of the following are whole grains, when eaten with all of their bran, germ and endosperm: amaranth; barley (not including pearled barley); buckwheat; corn (including popcorn, whole cornmeal); millet, oats (including oatmeal); quinoa; rice (brown and other colored rice); rye; sorghum (also called milo); teff; triticale (a wheat/rye hybrid); wheat (including varieties such as spelt, emmer, farro, einkorn, durum and forms such as bulgur, cracked wheat and wheatberries); and wild rice.

 Research, duplicated repeatedly over the past few decades, shows that people who regularly eat whole grains may reduce many serious health risks, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain cancers. More recent research suggests even more benefits. One Australian study showed that teens who switch from refined to whole grains cut their acne by more than 50% (Smith, RN, et al. 2008. J Dermatol Sci. 50:41-52), while a Dutch study found less asthma in kids who ate both fish and whole grains (Tabak C, et al. 2006. Thorax.61:1048-53).

Why are the benefits of whole grains so pervasive? One common point is that whole grains seem to reduce inflammation, a contributing factor in many chronic conditions. Whole grains also contain 3-5 times more vitamins and minerals than refined grains and an abundant supply of powerful antioxidants. They also contribute to satiety--that satisfied, full feeling that keeps people from raiding the vending machine an hour after a meal.

These benefits accrue only from the whole grain, however. Refining grains (removing the bran and germ) and then enriching them does not restore all the original nutrients. A few of the nutrients exemplified in the chart, “Whole-wheat vs. Enriched-wheat Flour,” illustrates this. Also, it is a common misconception that the only real benefit of whole grains is their fiber. As the chart shows, fiber is only a small part of the story. In fact, whole grains vary widely in their fiber content–from about 3.5% fiber for brown rice to 17% or more for barley--but, all are rich in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.

How Much is Needed?
The 2005 Dietary Guide-lines for Americans recommend at least three servings of whole grains every day. But, what counts as a serving?

If the food is 100% whole grain, a serving would be either ½-cup cooked rice, bulgur, pasta or cooked cereal; 1oz dry pasta, rice or other dry grain; one slice of bread, one small muffin (weighing 1oz) or 1 cup ready-to-eat cereal flakes. If the food combines refined and whole grain, 16g whole grain ingredients would equal a whole-grain serving.

This means it is quite easy for consumers to get their “daily dose” of whole grains. For example, if they eat just a 2oz serving of whole-grain pasta and one slice of whole-wheat bread, they are done.

Unfortunately, most Americans come nowhere near to eating the recommended amount of whole grains. According to new data from the NPD Group, whole grain consumption increased 20% after the release of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines. Even with this sharp rise, however, average consumption is still at less than three-quarters of a serving per day. Americans need to quadruple their consumption of whole grains, just to reach the recommended minimums.

Consumer Attitudes are Positive
Fortunately, consumers seem poised to make just such a leap. That is good news for American health, as well as for companies manufacturing whole grains. Evidence of positive consumer attitudes toward whole grains abounds. For example, PF Chang’s China Bistro, a nationwide chain with about 200 locations, reports that 45% of their customers choose brown rice over white rice. A January 2007 Harris Interactive Survey titled, “Healthy Eating: Impact on Consumer Packaged Goods Industry,” found that 13% cited “better taste” as their reason for choosing whole-grain products. (Earlier surveys showed consumers eating whole grains, despite their fuller, nuttier taste--not because of it.)

Also, The Canadian Council of Food and Nutrition, in its “2006 Tracking Nutrition Trends VI” survey, asked, “When you are selecting food to eat, to what degree, if any, does each of the following influence your food choices?” The top choice was “If it is made from whole grains,” with 84% citing whole grains as “very” or “somewhat” influential.

Perhaps most telling of all is data from the International Food Information Council (IFIC), which releases an annual survey titled, “Consumer Attitudes toward Food, Nutrition and Health.” As illustrated in the chart, “Consumer Intentions,” the IFIC survey shows a steady trend of consumers stating they want more whole grains and fewer refined carbohydrates.

Demand is mounting for whole grains, and smart manufacturers, restaurants and retailers are jumping in to fill the whole-grains gap. According to the Mintel Global New Products Database, in 2005, when the American Dietary Guidelines first mandated whole grains, 828 new whole-grain food and beverage products were introduced worldwide. After 2005, whole-grain introductions rocketed upward, with 2,808 new products introduced in 2008.

Formulating with Whole Grains and Whole-grain Foods Defined
Whole grains are here to stay, so any manufacturer that produces grain foods needs to know how to ride the whole-grain wave. It is useful to understand some of the basics of successful whole-grain formulation, along with accepted standards for creating and labeling whole-grain foods.

Most R&D departments have experimented with whole grains or have even launched successful products. For those just starting to explore the whole-grain universe, however, a few basic pointers about formulation are useful.

1. Each whole grain differs in taste and texture. Whole grains differ not only in their flavor profiles, but also in their formulation characteristics. Oats, for example, are highest in fats of the whole grains, so the recipe may have to be adjusted for other fats. Quinoa may have a bitter coating of saponins (a natural pest repellant) that must be rinsed off prior to use. Barley flour is tender and mild but may be crumbly in cookies or pie crusts. Sorghum is wonderfully neutral and requires lower levels of flavor additives than other grains. If developers are used to formulating only with wheat, they should allow time to get acquainted with different grains.

2. Each whole grain affects processes differently. Whole grains absorb moisture differently, so mixing time and resting times will vary. Proofing will differ, as will baking times, and different dough conditioners or other additives may be needed to optimize production.

3. Shelflife tends to be shorter for whole grains. Whole grains, full of active nutrients, have a shorter shelflife than refined grains, which already have had many of these nutrients removed. The heart-healthy fats in the germ of the grain are especially prone to spoilage. While it is a plus that whole grains sustain human life more easily, it is, unfortunately, true that they sustain the life of molds and pests more readily. All living things thrive on nutrient-dense foods. (That is a good rule of thumb: if the rest of nature does not find a food attractive, maybe it is not so good for humans, either.)

These considerations are not barriers; they are simply factors with which product developers must learn to work. The explosion of best-selling, whole-grain products on the market shows that savvy companies have already mastered the learning curve, and those that do not make whole-grain formulation an R&D priority will be left out of the strong market for whole-grain foods.

This brings the question: what is a whole-grain food? This article started with a definition of a whole-grain ingredient, a definition that is widely accepted. But, what quantity of whole-grain ingredients needs to be in a product, before it can be called a whole-grain bread, cracker, cookie or cereal?

Surprisingly, there is no clear definition; many conflicting government standards exist. For instance:
* FDA Whole-grain Health Claim. FDA allows foods to bear a whole-grain health claim stating, “Diets rich in whole-grain foods and other plant foods, and low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may help reduce the risk of heart disease,” if whole grains comprise 51% or more of the weight of all ingredients.
* FDA Non-binding Draft Guidance. In February 2006, FDA advised that a bagel or pizza crust, for example, only be labeled “whole grain,” if the product is made entirely from whole-grain flours.
* FDA Characterizing Ingredients. In CFR 21--102.5, FDA allows a product to be labeled by its characterizing ingredient, giving a mechanism for naming raisin bread, blueberry muffins and other foods (including whole grains) in which the characterizing ingredient may be a small percent of the total weight. Percents should be stated, if the name might be misleading without them.
* USDA FSIS Interim Policy Guidance. In October 2005, FSIS stated that it considers it acceptable to use whole grain in a product’s name, if whole grains comprise 51% or more of the weight of the grain ingredients, and the food contains at least 8g of whole-grain ingredients per labeled serving and per RACC. (FSIS rules apply to any products containing meat or poultry.)

With no consistent guidance, most manufacturers seem to have weighed in on the side of common sense, calling a product “whole grain,” when it contains more whole grain than refined grain and offers at least 8g (half a serving) of whole grain per portion. This position is most closely aligned with FSIS rules and is also the position held by the Whole Grains Council.

The Whole Grain Stamp: Communicating with Consumers
In January of 2005, just a week after the introduction of the new Dietary Guidelines, the Whole Grains Council, a Boston-based, non-profit educational organization, launched the Whole Grain Stamp. This eye-catching, black-and-gold packaging symbol made it easy for consumers to identify products offering at least half a serving (8g) of whole grain, eliminating a major barrier to increased consumption.

The Whole Grain Stamp comes in two versions. Products offering 8g or more of whole grains can qualify for the Basic Stamp. If all grain ingredients are whole grain (i.e., the product contains no refined grains), that product qualifies to add the 100% banner to its stamp. All Whole Grain Stamps show the actual amount of whole-grain content in a serving of the product (such as “23g or more per serving”), and include a reminder of the daily recommended amount, for context.

The Whole Grain Stamp quickly became an industry standard. It is now found on 2,500 products in the U.S. and Canada (where a bilingual version is available). Localized versions also are being adopted by companies for use in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, the U.K. and Poland. Some 225 companies support the Stamp, 90% of them based in the U.S. Full details on the Whole Grain Stamp program can be found at WholeGrainsCouncil.org.

The Future of Whole Grains
At a time when the world’s economies are in disarray, whole grains are more important than ever. Families struggling to put food on the table need to get the most bang out of every buck. Now that food manufacturers have figured out how to make whole-grain products both nutritious and delicious, many consumers are finding that nutrient-rich whole grains are a much better value than refined grains.

Meanwhile, even as more and more consumers discover they prefer the fuller taste of whole grains over the blander taste of refined grains, the U.S. government is getting ready to update its food guidelines. Sometime next year, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans will be released. It is too early to know what they will contain, but the smart money is betting that the recommendation for whole grains will only get stronger. pf