Oldways Whole Grains: Breaking Barriers Conference

Pseudoscience, taste & cost hinder sales of whole grain products

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Grains, Whole grain, Whole grains council

Alessio Fasano, founder and director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment. Source: Oldways Whole Grains Council
Alessio Fasano, founder and director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment. Source: Oldways Whole Grains Council
Consumers’ perception of whole grains have come a long way, but with most Americans consuming only 15% of the recommended daily intake of them, whole grains still have several barriers to overcome before they are fully integrated into the average person’s diet.

A significant barrier that blocks whole grain consumption is misinformation about gluten and “pseudoscience” ​that perpetuates myths about the nutritional value of whole grains, said Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways.

A growing number of U.S. adults avoid gluten because they want to “feel healthier”​ or “lose weight” ​based on information they have heard from celebrities or popular books, Alessio Fasano, founder and director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment, said at the Whole Grains Council’s Oldways Whole Grains: Breaking Barriers conference in Boston Nov. 9-11.

However, “weight problems are almost never the fault of one food. It’s total diet and lifestyle that matter. Any dietary pattern that severely restricts one food group will often lead to short term weight loss, because the options for what you can eat drastically diminish,” ​according to the Whole Grains Council.

It adds in materials prepared for the conference that this is especially true for eliminating wheat, which is present in the vast majority of marketed foods.

Food marketers can overcome this barrier by educating consumers about how whole grains – with their higher percentage of fiber –can help people feel full longer and, therefore, reduce their caloric intake.

Food makers can partner with retailers to reach consumers with positive and accurate science about gluten and whole grains, said Carrie Taylor, lead dietician at Big Y Foods, Inc. She explained at the conference that she publishes a newsletter about health and nutrition for Big Y grocery shoppers that is funded by food manufacturers. She uses it to tell consumers about the health benefits of whole grains and to share emerging science.

Partnerships with retailers are a good way “to walk the public through very easy messages about what are good carbs to eat versus what is not so good,”​ agreed Nicola McKeown, an associate professor at Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University.

Use gluten-free craze to introduce whole grains beyond wheat

A silver-lining to the gluten-free craze is the opportunity to encourage consumption of whole grains other than wheat, McKeown notes, adding consumer ignorance about the existence and benefits  of many types of whole grains is another barrier to their increased consumption.

“Gluten free does not mean grain free,”​ and just because someone gives up wheat or other gluten containing grains like barley, rye or triticale, does not mean they cannot eat other whole grains.

“We don’t recommend that people eat just one type of fruit or vegetable. Likewise, we don’t recommend people eat just one type of whole grain,”​ McKeown said. “Different grains offer different nutrients and benefits.”

For example, whole grains that are gluten free and packed with fiber and necessary nutrients include amaranth, millet, sorghum, oats, buckwheat, quinoa, teff, corn, rice and wild rice.

“Ancient grains also are making a comeback,”​ and industry should help consumers understand that “there are grains that have survived intact for centuries and are not altered by modern plant science breeding,”​ McKeown said.

Grain variety can overcome taste perceptions

Introducing consumers to a wider range of whole grains also can help with another barrier to consumption: the perception whole grains taste bad.

Whole grains generally have a fuller, nuttier flavor than refined grains or even whole wheat. One nonthreatening way to introduce consumers to these flavors is by incorporating them in cakes, cookies and crackers, said McKeown, as she expects to see an increase in consumption of these products by consumers in the coming years.

The Whole Grains Council also recommended adding alternative whole grains to baking mixes to consumers become familiar with how they look, feel and react during cooking.

Barrier: Whole grains are difficult to prepare

Lack of knowledge about how to cook whole grains is another significant barrier to consumption, said Ana Sorton, chef and owner of Oleana in Cambridge, Mass.

She noted that whole grains often are more labor intensive than refined grains in that they might need to be soaked, cleaned or cooked for longer.

“There is a big intimidation factor of discovery and how to cook things,”​ agreed Barry Maiden, chef at Hungry Mother in Cambridge, Mass. “More people are cooking at home more and more, but there is still a convenience factor to consider and many whole grains are not as convenient”​ as refined grains.

He noted that even though he has brown jasmine rice at home, he often opts for white rice because it cooks more quickly.

Cost hinders whole grain consumption

Cost is another notable barrier to people eating more whole grains.

“The big barrier to buying whole grains that I hear from consumers is cost,”​ said Taylor. “They are looking at bread and see they can buy white bread for this much or step it up and buy the whole wheat bread. They often make the choice based on price point: $1 versus $1.50.”

Food manufacturers can help overcome this by working with retailers to set prices that consumers can afford, said Jim Bressi, director of food research and product development at Kwik Trip, Inc., convenience stores.          

“A lot of us do live with a lower margin on whole grain products so we can keep the price for the consumer down. Otherwise, it becomes cost prohibitive,”​ he said.

Taylor agreed, noting her store buyers “have more flexibility”​ to buy whole grains so they can be offered at a price point consumers can manage.

Labeling works for and against whole grain consumption

Health claims and “unclean”​ labels also deter consumers from buying whole grains, Bressi said.

He explained that in the convenience channel “if we say this is healthy, we are guaranteed to see sales sink. So we really use the ‘stealth health’ approach,”​  to sell whole grain products, such as offering white whole wheat bread or simply not calling attention to the benefits of whole grains.

“Evil ingredients”​ on labels are another major block to product sales, he said. In the case of breads, consumers are looking for and refusing to buy products with azodicarbonamide, he explained, adding Kwik Trip stores will be ADA free by 2015. 

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