April 2, 2012

5 Min Read
Whole Grains & Health: Taste Right, Trend Right

Denise Hauge, M.S. and Len Marquart, Ph.D., R.D., Contributing Editors

Theres no way to overlook whole grains. With the rise in consumer demand and availability, whole grains are popping up everywhere, from grocery stores  and schools to,  increasingly, foodservice and quick-serve settings. Over the last decade, consumer preference for white, enriched-grain products has waned as research increasingly supports the positive health benefits of whole grains. Product developers have risen to the challenge of addressing the shift in consumer taste buds by  developing products with the goodness of whole grains and great taste that everyone can enjoy.

Several recent processing solutions have helped overcome the taste barriers often associated with whole grains.  Research suggests that gradual inclusion of whole-grain flours (Journal of Child Nutrition & Management, 2008; 32( 2)), innovative milling techniques that result in a finer grind for whole-grain flour,  and increased utilization of white whole wheat (Journal of Child Nutrition  & Management,2008; 32 (1)) can help ease the transition to a diet with more whole grains. The industry has risen to consumer demand for nutrient-added whole-grain products and has been met with success even during these times of economic challenge. Whole grains currently enjoy a high level of consumer awareness, even though many consumers are still unclear as to the exact health benefits. In a Jan. 2012 Nielsen Company survey, "Battle of the Bulge & Nutrition Labels: Healthy Eating Trends Around the World," participants in North America, Latin America and Europe indicated the No. 1 type of food purchased recently for its health benefits was whole-grain/high-fiber products.

Small changes make a big difference

Food manufacturers can use this positive momentum to address the challenge from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee (DGAC) to make the healthy choice the easy choice. An assessment of the current United States food environment found that it does not support the recommended dietary patterns laid out in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2010; 38:472-477). More than in past reports, the 2010 DGAC emphasized the importance of creating a healthier food environment. Consumer education alone will not sustain long-term behavioral change.  

Grain-based foods were highlighted in the GGAC report as contributing high levels of calories, saturated fats, added sugars and sodium. While many grain-based products are, by nature, indulgent, many, such as pizza, are staple foods eaten by millions of Americans every day.  Small modifications to these types of products over time, combined with aggressive consumer education and awareness-building, are the match needed to create and sustain a grain-based food supply that supports dietary guidance. New approaches for developing less calorically dense grain-based foods are already being implemented in venues like schools, where new regulations have tightened expectations on nutrition and calories. Small changes, such as the inclusion of whole-grain flour, use of low- or reduced-fat cheese, and increased use of alternative spices and flavor combinations in place of sodium,  can dramatically improve the total health profile of a product and, ultimately, our total food environment.  

Better business

Many of todays healthcare costs are incurred treating issues that are preventable through diet and lifestyle. Producing a healthier food environment is one approach to addressing obesity and its co-morbidities ("Tackling Obesities: Future Choices," Foresight, Nov. 2008). Creating a healthier food environment is a good idea because of its potential impact on public health, but recent research also indicates a healthy food-product portfolio can positively impact profitability of a company. For its 2011 report, "Better-For-You-Foods: Its Just Good Business," the Hudson Institute surveyed several of the largest food companies and found that those with better-for-you" foods are experiencing healthier profits and profit growth over those portfolios with foods that did not qualify as better-for-you." 

Consumers are reaching for more natural, nourishing products, and whole grains currently resonate with diverse consumer groups worldwide. While many of the challenges with whole-grain technology have been or are being addressed, several challenges still exist in the implementation of these products in the marketplace. For example, labeling of whole-grain foods must be coordinated across the industry to reduce consumer confusion (Cereal Foods World, 2008;53(5):260-264). Product developers on the cutting edge of whole-grain processing and reformulations for better" nutrition are creating our future food environment, where the healthy choice is the easy choice. 

Denise Hauge, M.S., is director at the Grains for Health Foundation, St. Louis Park, MN. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a masters of nutrition science in 2010. During her graduate program, she also completed a Fellowship through the Buckman Fellowship for Leadership & Philanthropy. She is also serving as the director of  the Grains for Health Foundation's  2012 Whole Grains Summit, May 20 to 22, 2012, in Minneapolis.

Len Marquart, Ph.D, R.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Over the last decade, his research has focused on approaches to modifying the food environment through gradual inclusion of whole grains in various settings, especially schools. Dr. Marquart was invited to present to the Institute of Medicine to inform key advisors during the recent modifications to the nutrition requirements of the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. Marquart also founded the Grains for Health Foundation in 2009. The 2012 Whole Grains Summit, May 20 to 22, 2012, will be the second international whole grains summit that  his team has hosted. The 2005 summit Marquart coordinated in Minneapolis attracted over 400 experts in grains and health and influenced research strategy for the last half decade.

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