SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA, US — The Grain Foods Foundation’s (GFF) work is closely tracking with consumer trends, said Erin Ball, interim executive director of the GFF, based in Washington, DC, US.

In a presentation Sept. 30 at the annual meeting of the North American Millers’ Association in Scottsdale, Arizona, US, Ball used data from the organization’s just completed fiscal year to demonstrate extraordinary traction its message has gained over the past few years.

Backing up her claim with numbers, she said GFF messaging gained 4.5 billion media impressions during the fiscal year ended Aug. 31, with media impressions defined as the number of times GFF or its messages had been seen in print or digital media or heard in audio media. Accounting for more than 75% of the figure were non-paid impressions she said.

The 4.5 billion impressions in fiscal 2022 capped what Ball called the organizations three best years ever, with annual impressions rising from 540 million in fiscal 2019 to 750 million the following year, 3 billion in fiscal 2021 and 4.5 billion in the just completed year.

“Undergirding those impressions numbers is GFF’s research journey,” Ball said. “What I would say about this is that it is a mountain we continue to climb. It is a timeline of peer-reviewed science that then becomes science-based messages that are pushed out into impressions. My predecessor Christine Cochran launched this initiative in 2013 and 2014. We had our first peer-reviewed publication in 2015.”

Ball showed a slide showing the steady release of GFF research in the years since 2017.

Questions she said consumers are asking include many about low-carbohydrate dieting and an anti-carbohydrate lifestyle. She said what began as the Atkins diet prompting the creation of the GFF has metamorphosed into a philosophy lacking scientific support that carbohydrates are bad for your health.

Other issues she cited relate to glycemic index (fast carbs versus slow carbs) and clean label (with a focus on processed and ultra-processed foods). Attention to clean label has called into question the enrichment and fortification of refined grain foods, Ball said.

Additionally, she said whole grain consumption remains lows.

These questions are being posed in an environment in which influencers continue to have the attention and ear of consumers, and where spending on food is driven by trends that include frugal living amid economic uncertainty (Ball said “grain foods play well in this space”), wellness, sustainability and nostalgia.

Research by the GFF has been on-topic Ball said, citing several studies by Glenn A. Gaesser, PhD, a professor in the College of Health Solutions at the University of Arizona. Gaesser also chairs the GFF’s scientific advisory board. One of his studies showed so-called fast carbs, carbohydrates that are metabolized more quickly, do not lead to more weight gain than slow carbs. The study generated 1.2 billion media impressions.

Another study explored what happens when grains are removed from the diet (the answer is nutritional deficiencies worsen) and showed no correlation between grains intake and the risk of type 2 diabetes.

“This summer, Glenn again published a paper showing no correlation between grains intake and the risk of type 2 diabetes,” Ball said. “It addresses that general idea that grains are bad for overall health.  And again, here is Glenn debunking that. That was followed by a paper published two weeks ago. Glenn published a parallel paper that shows no correlation between intake of refined grains and cardiovascular disease risk.

“These two papers I call those out because they were published in medical journals. This is new for us because traditionally we have targeted nutrition science journals. We’ve had a lot of success there. Glenn was actually approached by the Mayo Clinic Proceedings to write the type 2 diabetes paper, and he saw an opportunity to follow that up with (a publication in Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine). Medical journals are a whole new place for us to play. Our scientific advisory board has been asking us for years to do more with clinical education. Being published in these dietary journals is a great place for us to start moving forward to make a greater impact in those areas.”

Campaign focusing whole grains

Ball concluded with a description of “Better together,” a campaign the GFF has been working on for about the past nine months. The idea was prompted by low levels of whole grains consumption.

“Consumers understand they should be eating more whole grains,” Ball said. “There is guilt about it. They aren’t finding whole grain products they love, they want to eat consistently. It is not due to a lack of effort on your part and your customers’ part. I understand it has been difficult.”

The campaign is built on the premise that encouragement to eat more whole grains is almost always coupled with guidance to consume fewer refined grains, Ball said.

She expressed the view that when consumers struggle figuring out what “the right products are” for whole grains, “they throw the baby out with the bath water and say, ‘I’m not going to eat any grains.’

“I thought GFF was the perfect place to put forward a different message,” she said. “We are enriched grains friendly. We believe they are an important part of the American diet. What if the people who are friendly to enriched grains said, ‘Why don’t we try to eat more whole grains alongside those?’”

She described better together as a two-part long-term effort. The first is to affirm the products that are popular, enriched grains, while also encouraging consumers to move closer to the targeted three servings a day of whole grains recommended by the nutrition community.

It’s meant to encourage consumers to add grains on their plate with other nutrient dense foods such as fruits and vegetables and lean protein.

“This is a partnership GFF is pursuing with other groups about putting a nutrient dense plate together and push it out on digital channels,” Ball said.

Wheat Foods Council at 50

Following Ball was a presentation by Tim O’Connor, president of the Wheat Foods Council, Littleton, Colorado, US, an organization established 50 years ago to address issues facing the wheat foods industry with a single voice and single message. Briefly sharing his professional background leading him to the WFC, Connor said he previously held positions working with the beef, potato and avocado industries before shifting to wheat.

Describing WFC’s approach to its messaging, O’Connor said consumer insights are critical for identifying strategies with the most upside. Based on such insights, the organization over time has worked to educate personal trainers, enhance the image of enriched foods, improve the image of modern wheat and educate registered dietitians. The latter strategy is no longer a central focus.

More recently the WFC has begun devoting attention to chefs of foodservice chains, hosting chef workshops. An insight gleaned from interactions with the chefs is that many restaurants are struggling how to update their menus to become more suitable for the plant-forward movement.

The WFC has worked with chefs to disabuse them of the idea they need to move away from wheat-based foods as too “mundane,” and instead move to items like chickpeas. The WFC has developed ways to show enriched grains belong in a plant-based diet. Having generated traction in recent years with short YouTube videos, O’Connor said several of the chefs have been featured in videos offering comments supportive of grain-based foods.

Elaborating on the group’s focus on personal trainers, O’Connor said the number of people who can afford and choose to use a personal trainer is not that great. Still, he said the ripple effect is considerable when someone, guided by a personal trainer, becomes physically active, achieves some success at weight loss and begins sharing the information with friends and family.