Novel, less common grains, such as millet, can be of assistance in gluten-free products, a health shift driven by those with celiac disease. @iStockphoto/Yali Shi

Long heralded as a dietary component highly beneficial for better health, fiber (in the strictest sense) is technically not even a nutrient, because it literally passes right through the body unabsorbed. It is this very characteristic that leads to an abundance of value for minimizing risk of leading chronic health conditions and diseases that plague the U.S. population today.

Grain-based foods can contribute significantly to fiber needs, because they tend to be a regular part of daily eating patterns (specifically if they are whole grains). This is especially important when considering most Americans only consume about half of the recommended daily value of 25g for a 2,000-calorie diet.

Wholesome for Health

At the Oldways Preservation Trust-organized Whole Grains Council (WCG) “Just Ask! For Whole Grains” international conference held last November in Kansas City, Mo., Robert Post, deputy director, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, USDA, presented fiber’s benefit as primarily related to digestion. He also stated that it increases satiety without adding calories; lowers blood cholesterol; and stimulates bacterial fermentation in the colon--all of which are a contributing advantage in combating heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes and obesity.

University of Rhode Island researchers found whole-grain cereals helped 180 overweight adults lose weight.1A study of 150 college students concluded higher whole-grain intake was associated with a lower BMI (Body Mass Index).2

An average of 2½ whole-grain servings daily can lower heart disease risk by nearly 25%, as reported by a seven-study meta-analysis of 285,000 men and women at Wake Forest University.3  Another study measuring artherosclerotic thickening of the common carotid artery among 1,178 men and women revealed that those who ate more whole grains had less unhealthy progression of the condition. 4   Following 21,376 male physicians for almost 20 years at Harvard University showed those eating 2-6 servings of whole-grain cereal (at least 25% whole grain or bran by weight weekly) reduced their heart failure risk by 22%, while daily inclusion led to a 28% risk reduction.5 

Data analysis for almost half a million middle-aged men and women enrolled in the “National Institutes of Health American Association of Retired Persons Diet and Healthy Study” showed that, although total dietary fiber intake was not associated with a reduced risk of colorectal cancer, both grain fiber and whole grains were likely to have this affect. 6

Harvard School of Public Health researchers pooled data from six cohort studies, including 286,125 participants, and found that two whole-grain servings daily were associated with a 21% decrease in type 2 diabetes risk.7  Following over 16,000 adults for seven years, a team of German researchers discovered those who ate the most cereal fiber had a 27% lower risk of developing diabetes, compared to those who ate the least, a link noted only with cereal fiber.8

Inflammation, an underlying factor in chronic disease conditions, is also affected by whole grains. C-reactive protein (CRP) is a known marker for inflammation, increasingly accepted as a valid predictor of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The Medical University of South Carolina discovered that a high-fiber diet can cut CRP levels up to 40%.9 

Whole Grains Held in High Regard

The WCG reports that repeated surveys indicate consumers have a very positive attitude toward whole grains; increasingly seek them out; and recent studies document that taste may no longer be a barrier to their enjoyment and consumption. An April 2008 “Whole Grain Consumer Awareness Telephone Survey,” conducted by Opinion Research Corporation, revealed that nearly 90% of Americans know whole grains should be part of a healthy diet.

Lynn Dornblaser, director of consulting for Custom Solutions at Mintel International, presented June 2007 online survey data findings that showed those aged 18+ are eating more whole-grain bread than last year. Among the 999 adults interviewed:
  • 92% said they are buying more because it is healthier than most other breads.
  • 78% switched to whole-grain bread from another kind of bread.
  • 77% are buying more because there are more whole-grain bread choices.

    Among 1,780 consumers aged 18 and older who have eaten cold/hot breakfast cereal in the past three months, 66% rated whole grains as an important attribute for cereal; 58% rated fiber content as such. Only taste and price came in higher, at 94% and 72%, respectively.

    Presenting International Food Information Council findings about “How Food Decisions are Made,” Shelley Goldberg, MPH, RD, director, Nutrition Communications, announced that whole grains ranked fourth and fiber fifth among the 10 functional foods named by consumers when asked, “What is the (first/second/third) food or food component that comes to mind that is thought to have health benefits beyond basic nutrition?”

    Compared to a similar survey two years earlier, awareness of whole grains grew 25% between 2005-2007. Some 61% said they were trying to eat less-refined carbohydrates; 71% said they were trying to eat more whole grains.

    Regarding specific benefits of top functional foods, 86% associated both fiber and whole grains with intestinal health, 74% linked fiber to reduced risk of heart disease, 73% connected fiber to reduced risk of cancer, and 72% associated whole grains with heart disease benefits.

    Kate Peringer of The Hartman Group reported that consumers are seeking whole grains more than ever before; in their quest to eat healthier, fiber is a highly sought attribute, also. She noted that interest in whole grains is fundamentally related to a general shift in food culture. “White” foods are seen as “refined,” “processed,” “stripped,” “void of nutrients” and likely to be surrounded by other “undesirable” ingredients such as sugar, trans fats and high fructose corn syrup. They do not communicate or signal whole grains or “brown food.” Brands that have tried to maintain their “white” appeal are looked upon skeptically. 

    A recent case validates this point. Last month, the Center for Science in Public Interest (CSPI) withdrew its December 2007 intent-to-sue over Sara Lee’s “Soft & Smooth Made With Whole Grain White Bread” labeling, which CSPI said suggested it had as much fiber as 100% whole-wheat bread. Sara Lee will clarify that the product is 30% whole grain and will also add copy stating that two slices have 10g of whole grain, and the USDA recommends consumption of 48g of whole grains daily. Sara Lee intends the item as a transitional product designed to get consumers who are used to the taste and texture of white bread to consume more whole grains, a tactic suggested by others, as well.

    At the grass-roots level of giving specific healthcare advice, dietitians commonly advise individuals and groups in counseling to look for the word “whole” in the very first ingredient on a food label, along with at least 10% of the daily value for fiber, and tend to regard the gram amount of whole grains as less meaningful without a consistent ingredient list and good fiber content.

    The WGC declares, “If we run the world’s most successful educational campaigns and convince all Americans to enjoy more whole grains, we have wasted our time if they get to the store and can’t find a reasonable variety of whole-grain choices or even figure out which products contain a significant amount of whole grains.”

    The USDA’s Post stressed the need for collaborative working relationships between the federal government and the grain-based food industry. “When foods are reformulated, the data used to characterize what is available for consumption must reflect those reformulations. A reciprocal relationship between the food industry and the federal government would strengthen the reporting of trends in nutrient availability. The grain-based food and food ingredients industry can help by providing additional data on fiber-enriched products and on formulations/nutrient contents of products,” he asserted. “When data on fiber-enriched products are included in the U.S. food supply series, the dietary fiber benefits of grain-based foods are clearly identifiable for their contributions and reflect the industry’s responses to federal nutrition policies regarding the components of healthful diets,” he concluded.

  • Going Against the Grain--Some Challenges

    [The industry has] “…less experience with whole-grain products, [there is often] slower product turnover and shorter shelflife,” said Elizabeth Arndt, Ph.D., R&D manager, ConAgra Foods, during the WCG conference session, “From Dense to Delicious—Manufacturers Learn Whole-grain Tricks.” Along with flavor, she described important ingredient textural considerations (e.g., grain type such as hard or soft whole wheat, other whole grains or multigrain mixtures), available forms (e.g., seed, flour or flakes) and particle size (e.g., coarse to crushed) to customize product appearance. Nutritional targets encompass total fiber (insoluble and soluble amounts), protein levels and amino acid profiles, and fat content. During processing, moisture absorption is a variable, because whole grains require more liquid and less mixing. Product functionality, supporting ingredients, sanitation, stability and finished product shelflife also are important factors.

    Arndt recommends beginning with popular items such as pizza crust, tortillas, pasta and buns and gradually incorporating whole grains into foods by making partial products that contain both whole and refined grains to allow consumers time to get used to differences, while manufacturers can continue stepwise increases. She also encourages developing innovative and novel whole-grain products, such as macaroni and cheese and frozen breakfast sandwiches.

    Peringer also related that consumers want more “simplicity” in their lives and are increasingly impatient with, and distrustful of, complex product offerings and prefer to rely on simple, symbolic logic to associate products with their functionality or inherent benefits. “Promote whole and unprocessed ingredients, short ingredient lists and ingredients they can understand,” she recommends, “Stay positive and straightforward with your health and wellness messaging.”

    Consumers will continue to demand mobility for all eating occasions, with more consumers turning to snacks, small meals, beverages and portable foods to satisfy their need to combine meals with other activities. Desirable products are ones that can easily accompany the consumer--stashed in a briefcase or purse--while traveling, exercising or playing. Consumers want cereal that is mobile, not a bowl and milk. Cereal bars, due in part to their complex ingredient lists, often do not fill that image, yet a demand for customized portion control will increase among adults and parents with children.

    Whole Grains Holding Their Own

    “Growth in the whole-wheat flour category has been phenomenal,” said Cynthia Harriman, director of Food and Nutrition Strategies, Oldways and WCG. Mintel reported that the whole-grain category accounted for the most launches over the past two years. Baked goods with whole-grain positioning outperform all bakery products, and for new products making whole-grain claims, the U.S. leads the normally higher European products. The Mintel Global New Products Database revealed that in 2006, nearly 10 times as many new whole-grain products were introduced, as compared to the year 2000.

    The popularity of whole grains is opening up doors for more novel, flavorful and lesser-known types. According to Datamonitor, “what is really old is new again,” as the latest craze sweeping the food industry worldwide is the “ancient” grains. Packaged food and beverage markets are seeing a growing influx of new products featuring grains that were favored by civilizations thousands of years ago. Less-processed grains also meet consumer desire to avoid an abundance of what consumers perceive as over-processed products--63% of American and 58% of European consumers surveyed in 2006 said that it was either “important” or “very important” to reduce consumption of processed foods. Datamonitor’s Productscan online database of new food and beverage products featuring a short list of ancient grains has doubled since 2005. During 2007, some 515 new food and beverage products were introduced worldwide, a doubling of the 257 new products featuring these grains in 2005 and a nearly five-fold increase over the 112 new products in 2004 that used grains such as quinoa, spelt, kamut, amaranth and chia. 

    Ingredient suppliers are also rising to the ancient grains challenge. Last year, one USA-based supplier introduced five ancient grain flours for commercial use, including quinoa, teff and sorghum, all touted as having distinct flavor profiles to better inspire “next-generation” whole-grain foods.

    Another supplier introduced a branded ingredient--available in conventional, baking grade and organic formats--using a new technology that delivers ancient grain nutrition in a formulation-friendly powdered blend. The blend overcomes the well-known challenges of traditional grains, due to a patented production process developed in cooperation with the USDA. A dispersible, hydrophilic powder rich in ancient grain amino acids and heart-healthy fiber from amaranth, barley, buckwheat, durum, millet, chia, quinoa and spelt is created and can be easily incorporated into smoothies, soups, pastas, beverages, bars and baked goods. Until now, these grains had limited applications in anything but cereals and baked goods, due to texture and dispersibility concerns.

    Novel, less common grains are also consistent for the reigning gluten-free health shift driven by those with celiac disease, glucose intolerance and autism. Carol Fenster, president and founder, Savory Palate, noted that rice, corn, sorghum, tapioca, amaranth, buckwheat, mesquite, millet, montina (Indian ricegrass), quinoa, teff and oats replace wheat, barley, rye, spelt and triticale for gluten avoiders.

    While baked goods and cereals have enjoyed a nice charge from the whole-grains effort, market saturation is nearing for obvious categories, though continued growth is expected elsewhere, especially in Europe and Latin America. “Expect to see the flattening of new product introductions with whole grains in the U.S. to remain, as the market is saturated,” Dornblaser advised, citing new opportunities via creative applications in other categories such as dairy, beverage and confections. She asserted that potential also lies in adding more benefits to products that are made with whole grains, consistent with key trends of bundling portion control, indulgence, age and gender segmentation, fortification, organic and even social responsibility attributes.

    Bob Gould, retail marketing manager at Snyder’s of Hanover, said his company strived to offer shoppers one aisle of destination, featuring all their products with label messaging in one spot, instead of positioning different varieties as line extensions. “The power is on front of package,” said Todd Kluger, of Roman Meal. This is consistent with the Opinion Research Corporation’s findings, where 70% of those surveyed said they would likely increase whole-grain consumption, if the benefits were clearly listed on the package, and the EatingWell/USA Rice survey, where 80% said they would likely eat more whole grains, if they were clearly labeled as such. NS

    Lauren Swann, MS, RD, LDN, is a freelance writer and president of Concept Nutrition Inc. (Bensalem, Pa.), which offers consulting services specializing in food labeling, nutrient analyses, marketing communications and cultural dietary practices. She can be reached at 215-639-1203, or www.


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    2Rosen, N. et al. 2007. Whole-grain intake is associated with body mass index in college students. J Nutr Educ Behav. 39:90-94.
    Mellen, PB, et al. 2008. Whole grain intake and cardiovascular disease: A meta-analysis. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 18:283-290.
    4Mellen, PB, et al. 2007. Whole-grain intake and carotid artery atherosclerosis in a multiethnic cohort: the Insulin Resistance Atherosclerosis Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 85:1495-1502.
    5  Djoussé, L and Gaziano, JM. 2007. Breakfast cereals and risk of heart failure in the physicians' health study I. Arch Intern Med. 167:2080-2085.
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    8  Schulze, MB, et al. 2007. Fiber and magnesium intake and incidence of type 2 diabetes: a prospective study and meta-analysis. Arch Intern Med. 167:956-65.
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    Claiming the Way to Whole Grains

    Brown rice, a 100% whole-grain food, can now bear the whole-grain health claim: “Diets rich in whole-grain foods and other plant foods and low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.” For the first time, FDA states that all single-ingredient, whole-grain foods qualify for the claim, regardless of whether they meet the requirement for a minimum level of dietary fiber, as long as they meet the other general health claim requirements.

    Questions had also been raised over sprouted grains and whole-grain claims. The USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS), during routine pre-approval of amenable meat and poultry products, had preliminarily ruled that, because sprouted grains are more akin to vegetables, whole-grains claims could not be made on them. The WGC partnered with American Association of Cereal Chemists (AACC) International’s Whole Grains Task Force, who crafted (with AACC International Board approval) the statement: “Malted or sprouted grains containing all of the original bran, germ and endosperm shall be considered whole grains, as long as sprout growth does not exceed kernel length and nutrient values have not diminished. These grains should be labeled as malted or sprouted whole grain.”

    The WGC reported AACC International’s data-supported position to USDA-FSIS officials, and FSIS revised its ruling, now allowing sprouted grains that comply with AACC International’s definition to be whole grains with adjustment for dry weight independent of additional excess water from the sprouting process.

    As healthy as whole grains are, they traditionally are not present in a number of applications, dairy products being a prime example. Indeed, consumers are unlikely to look to products such as ice cream as a way to increase their dietary fiber consumption. However, as formulators add functional ingredients to replace sugar’s “bulk,” add flavoring components, reduce fat and/or provide stability in such frozen products, the end result may well be noteworthy fiber quantities appearing on the Nutrition Facts panel.

    For example, Friendly Ice Creams’ No Sugar Added Black Raspberry ice cream introduced a few years back lists polydextrose, black raspberry puree, guar gum, xanthan gum and locust bean gum on its ingredient statement, and its Nutrition Facts panel sports 4g dietary fiber per half-cup serving. Unilevers’ new Breyers Double Churn Fat-Free Mint Fudge Ice Cream provides 3g fiber per half-cup serving, with its ingredient legend listing polydextrose, cellulose gum, carob bean gum, guar gum, carrageenan and cocoa. While neither product makes any type of fiber claim, the flavoring and stabilizer systems add up to a not-insignificant source of dietary fiber. Indeed, at one cup, or a double serving of ice cream, the Breyer's ice cream provides some 24% of the Daily Value for fiber.
    --Claudia D. O'Donnell, Chief Editor