Whole grains campaign marches on

by Arvin Donley
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As the emphasis on health and nutrition continues to grow, so has the global demand for whole grain products.

According to the Mintel Global New Products Database, nearly 15 times as many new whole grain products were introduced worldwide in 2007 as compared to 2000. The data, which runs through March 31, 2008, shows that 2,368 products were added to the global market in 2007, a 1,344% increase over the 164 that were introduced in 2000.

The surge in new offerings has been especially significant in the bakery and breakfast cereals sectors, which over the seven-year period increased from 84 to 798 and 37 to 708, respectively, according to Mintel.

In recent years, the growth in demand for whole grain products has been greatest in the United States (U.S.), in part because of a very successful educational campaign by the Boston, Massachussetts, U.S.-based Whole Grains Council (WGC), a program developed by the food issues think tank Oldways. Despite the recent gains, the average American consumes about one serving of whole grains per day, well below the recommended intake of three servings (48 grams or more) per day.

Another country that has not traditionally been a big consumer of whole grains is Britain. According to Health Grain, a European-based project that aims to promote and develop a wider range of whole grain products, 95% of British adults and 94% of the children do not eat the recommended daily amount of three servings, and approximately one-third of British adults and 27% of the children fail to consume any whole grain foods.

But the WGC said a recent development may help to reverse that trend. In January 2008, British Bakels, one of the United Kingdom’s (U.K.) leading ingredients suppliers to the food and bakery markets, launched the first product outside the U.S. and Canada to carry the U.S. Whole Grains Council Stamp of Approval, which can be placed on any product as long as it contains at least a half a serving (at least eight grams) of whole grain.

"We are thrilled to be the first company outside of North America to work with the Whole Grains Council," said Bakels Marketing Manager Joe Kellaway. "We believe their program will one day be as large here as it is in the U.S."

The WGC is also making inroads in other European countries besides the U.K. On June 13, Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the WGC and Oldways, addressed the European Millers Association in Helsinki, Finland about successful education and marketing strategies for whole grains.

"We focused on the successful marketing efforts made for whole grains in the U.S. and how this can be done in Europe," Harriman told World Grain.

She said whole grains consumption trends in Europe vary greatly from country to country.

"If you look at northern Germany and Scandinavia, they have a wonderful history of very solid whole grain support," Harriman said. "Going through the stores in Helsinki I saw a lot of rye bread and other types of whole grain products. Then you have (Denmark), which has the strongest, clearest definition and recommendation of whole grains consumption of any country in the world."

Harriman noted that the whole grain foods are not as prevalent in diets of some other countries in that region, but she believes that will change. "I think the biggest increase is still to come in Europe," she said.

In addition to Britain, the Dominican Republic supermarket chain Bravo began placing the Whole Grain Council Stamp on their products, and five companies in Mexico have also recently agreed to place the stamp on products that qualify as "whole grain."

Increasing the awareness and consumption of whole grains on the international level was one of the primary focuses of the WGC’s "Just Ask for Whole Grains" conference in Kansas City, Missouri, U.S., in November 2007. The event included an international workshop in which leaders from countries such as Canada, Denmark, Japan, Germany and Australia traded ideas about whole grains education and promotion.

Shortly thereafter, year-long discussions between the WGC and Canadian regulatory officials led to launching the Whole Grains Stamp in Canada.

From a global standpoint, Harriman said it remains to be seen how the growing economies in heavily populated countries such as China and India will have on whole grain consumption. According to Health Grain, a number of surveys have shown that people with higher income and education levels in the U.S. and U.K. consume more whole grain products, which tend to cost more than other types of grainbased products. But that may not be the case in countries in the Eastern Hemisphere.

"It’s a double-edged sword, because the people in those developing countries are also starting to develop more of a western diet," said Harriman, referring to the tendency of people in the Western Hemisphere to eat more red meat and fried food.

The criteria for what qualifies a product as "whole grain" has been vigorously debated in recent years. But the most iron-clad definition is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA), which states that at least 51% of the total weight of the product must be whole grain.

In the U.S., foods that meet this requirement (and meet a few other nutrient requirements) are allowed to carry the statement: "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."

Since no lab test for "whole grain content" exists, the FDA initially stipulated that products using this claim must prove compliance by equaling or exceeding the fiber level of wheat, the grain most common in the American diet.

In response to a petition filed by the USA Rice Federation, the FDA has since clarified that position, noting that products such as brown rice, with a fiber content that does not match that of wheat but is 100% whole grain, can be included in the list of products qualifying for the "whole grain health claim." Other examples of whole grains include bulgar, cracked wheat, oatmeal and whole cornmeal.

In 2007, the Food and Health Survey by the International Food Information Council found that 71% of people in the U.S. are trying to consume more whole grains. The U.S. milling industry has reacted to this trend by ratcheting up production of whole wheat flour.

Results of a recent survey of the top U.S. milling companies by World Grain’s sister publication, Milling & Baking News, estimated that whole wheat flour production in 2006-07 rose 21% (15,188,000 cwts) over the previous year (12,510,000 cwts). The 20 companies surveyed account for 92% of U.S. flour milling capacity.

The production increase appeared to confirm assessments of whole wheat advocates that whole wheat products were rapidly capturing the buying focus of consumers as well as being offered in increasing volume by manufacturers of grain-based consumer foods. The 21% upturn estimated for 2006-07 followed similarly strong rates of growth in 2005-06 (26%), 2004-05 (21%) and 2003-04 (10%).

In the four years ending in 2006-07, whole wheat flour production in the U.S. jumped 7,660,000 cwts, or 102%.

However, it is important to note that even with the recent sharp gains, whole wheat flour output accounted for only 4% of domestic disappearance of wheat flour, excluding durum semolina, in the U.S. during this time. Even if production of whole wheat flour was to continue at the pace of the last few years, it is doubtful the production would exceed 5% of all flour production in 2007-08.

One U.S. milling company, Con-Agra Mills, has developed a patentpending milling process that delivers whole grain flour with the same size particles as traditional refined white flour. ConAgra says its Ultragrain milling process retains the fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients concentrated within the bran and germ, while yielding whole grain wheat flour with a taste, smooth texture and appearance that is similar to traditional refined white flour.

Initially, Ultragrain was available only to food manufacturers and restaurants. As consumer demand for whole grain products increased, Eagle Mills All-Purpose Flour saw an opportunity to bring Ultragrain to the consumer market as retail flour that contains a blend of 30% Ultragrain and 70% premium white flour.

However, bread made from this kind of flour would not technically qualify as a whole grain product, since it contains less than 51% whole wheat flour.

Sara Lee Corp., Downer’s Grove, Illinois, U.S., recently came under fire from a food labeling advocacy group for its "Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Bread" products. The products contain a blend of 30% whole wheat flour and 70% enriched flour. Sara Lee said it will make several label revisions, including displaying a "30% whole grains" claim on the front of the label so it is clear the products do not qualify as 100% whole grain.

The next WGC Conference will be held April 20-22, 2009 in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S. Harriman said it’s no coincidence that the conference, entitled, "Make Half Your Grains Whole," will be held near the nation’s capital, as it is during this period that policymakers will be planning the 2010 Dietary Guidelines.

"It’s a good time to be in the D.C. area with a strong message on the health benefits of whole grains," Harriman said.

In 2005, the Dietary Guidelines put an increased emphasis on whole grains, recommending that consumers obtain at least half of their daily consumption of grains from whole grain products.

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