|Will 2005 Be the Year
of the Whole Grain?
Peggy Greb, USDA/ARS
Will 2005 be the year of the whole grain? According
to the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it should
be. For the first time, the Dietary Guidelines have
specific recommendations for whole grain consumption
separate from those for refined grains. The Guidelines,
released in January 2005, encourage all Americans over
2 years old to eat at least three 1-ounce-equivalent
servings of whole grains each day, or roughly half of
their recommended 5 to 10 daily servings of grains,
depending on calorie needs.
The goal of this new recommendation is to improve Americans’
health by raising awareness of whole grains and their
role in nutritious diets. The Guidelines could also,
however, have big impacts on farmers and farm production.
How big depends on consumers’ and manufacturers’
Will Consumers Follow the Guidelines?
Historical eating trends, and the popularity of diets,
demonstrate that consumers do modify their food choices
in response to diet and health information. For example,
in response to health warnings about consuming too much
saturated fat, per capita consumption of whole milk
declined by 70 percent between 1970 and 2003, while
consumption of lower fat and skim milk increased by
140 percent. However, trends in overall fat consumption
suggest that some dietary advice is ignored. Total per
capita consumption of added fats and oils has risen
63 percent since 1970, despite widespread health warnings.
The new whole-grain recommendations are ambitious,
given Americans’ current eating patterns. Though
Americans have been eating more grain products, they
consume few whole grains. According to ERS food availability
data, Americans were eating, on average, 10 servings
of grains a day in 2003—only 1 of which was whole
grains. Whole-grain data are incomplete, as information
on some whole grains, such as buckwheat and quinoa,
are not available.
Whether consumers embrace whole grains involves weighing
their attributes—taste, convenience, availability,
price, and perceived health benefits—relative
to other food choices. For most consumers, taste is
the deciding factor, as shown by years of survey data
from the Food Marketing Institute. Whole-grain products
that fail to pass the consumer taste test will have
difficulty competing against refined products that do.
Convenience may also be an issue for some consumers.
Many whole grains require longer preparation and cooking
time than refined grains. For example, brown rice takes
25 minutes longer to cook than white. For some consumers,
availability may also hinder whole-grain consumption,
though less so now that whole-grain products are increasingly
plentiful in places other than health food stores and
Cost is another consideration. Historically, some whole-grain
products were more expensive because they were specialty
items produced in smaller quantities. A 2001 ERS study
found that the average supermarket price for whole-wheat
or whole-grain bread in 1999 was $1.38 per pound, versus
$1.15 for nonwhole-grain bread. Brown rice cost $1.16
per pound, versus $0.72 for nonwhole-grain rice. A more
recent ERS analysis puts the average cost of whole-grain/whole-wheat
bread at $1.99 per pound in 2003, versus $1.66 per pound
for white bread. Where they exist, price spreads above
industrywide thin profit margins may provide an unexpected
benefit to food manufacturers who produce whole-grain
products. However, any price spread will likely be short-lived
as more manufacturers join the whole-grain market.
Consumers Confused Over Labels and Serving Sizes
For consumers who follow the Guidelines and decide to
eat more whole grains, constraints may remain. Even
motivated consumers may have difficulty meeting dietary
recommendations because it is often tough to tell which
products contain whole grains. There is no universally
accepted definition of whole-grain foods, and labels
may be hard to understand. Labels like “wheat
bread,” “stone-ground,” and “seven-grain
bread” do not guarantee that the food contains
whole grains. Color is not a good indicator of whole
grains either because foods may be darker simply because
of added molasses (see “What Are Whole-Grain Foods?”).
The difficulty consumers have in identifying whole
grains makes it harder to meet the dietary requirements.
According to a Natural Marketing Institute report, 71
percent of consumers think that they are already consuming
enough whole grains. Data based on consumers' recalling
their intake from the previous day, however, indicate
that nearly 40 percent of Americans consume no whole
grains. Consumers who mistakenly think that they are
already consuming enough whole grains will not make
the effort to increase their intake.
Once consumers identify whole-grain products, they
may still struggle with getting recommended amounts
of whole grain into their diets. Most consumers are
unclear on what a serving of whole grains is, particularly
in an era where oversized food portions are common.
In general, a serving of grains is an ounce-equivalent
of food, such as a slice of bread; a half cup of cooked
cereal, rice, or pasta; or about 1 cup of dry cereal
(¼ cup for dense, granola cereals to 1½
cups for some unsweetened puffed cereals). Consumers
who do not have a good sense of a serving size may have
difficulty judging how their daily consumption tallies
up against serving recommendations.
In the short run, consumers will probably not meet
the goal of three ounce-equivalents of whole grains
per day. However, as knowledge of the Guidelines grows
and as consumers learn more about the health benefits
of whole grains, consumption patterns will likely change.
Consumers, however, are only one side of the equation;
manufacturers will play their part in supplying whole-grain
What Are Whole-Grain Foods?
There is no universally accepted definition of whole
grains. The new Dietary Guidelines uses the American
Association of Cereal Chemists’ definition, which
is “foods made from the entire grain seed, usually
called the kernel, which consists of the bran, germ,
and endosperm. If the kernel has been cracked, crushed,
or flaked, it must retain nearly the same relative proportions
of bran, germ, and endosperm as the original grain in
order to be called whole grain.” The U.S. Food
and Drug Administration (FDA) requires foods that bear
the whole-grain health claim to: (1) contain 51 percent
or more whole-grain ingredients by weight per reference
amount and (2) be low in fat.
Whole grains can be consumed either as a single food,
such as wild rice and popcorn, or as a food ingredient,
as in some multigrain breads. Whole grains are good
sources of fiber and other nutrients, such as calcium,
magnesium, and potassium. Diets that contain at least
three or more ounce-equivalents of whole grains per
day may help with weight control and can reduce the
risk of several chronic diseases, such as coronary heart
disease and some kinds of cancer. Refined grains are
the product of a process that removes most of the bran
and some of the germ. During this process, some dietary
fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other natural plant compounds
Almost all refined grains are enriched before being
further processed into foods, a step taken by many grain
companies since the 1940s. In order to conform to FDA’s
standards of identity, enriched foods were required
to be fortified with thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and
iron. In 1998, the FDA required that folic acid be added
to the enrichment mixture. Currently, enrichment is
not required for whole-grain foods.
Examples of whole grains:
Bulgur (cracked wheat)
Source: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, jointly issued
by USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, January 2005. Photo by Curtia Taylor, USDA/ERS.
Manufacturers Are Listening
Food manufacturers can serve as catalysts to change
by quickly responding to, or even anticipating, dietary
trends. In their business decisions, they incorporate
the latest scientific evidence and market research,
while closely following food consumption trends. In
anticipation of the new Dietary Guidelines and consumers’
reactions to them, many companies launched new branded
packaged foods with higher whole-grain content in 2004.
For example, General Mills announced plans to switch
all its cereal formulations to whole-grain products,
Nestlé launched a frozen entrée line made
with 100-percent whole grains, and Sara Lee launched
its Heart Healthy Plus line of fortified, 100-percent
whole-wheat and multigrain breads. That same year, ConAgra
introduced a new whole-grain flour called “Ultragrain
White Whole Wheat.” ConAgra uses both an extra
refining process and a less commonly used wheat (hard-white
winter) to make whole-wheat products similar in taste
and “mouth feel” to refined products, while
retaining the nutritional benefits of whole grains.
In addition to new product offerings, some manufacturers
are educating consumers about the benefits of whole
grains and how to identify whole-grain products. Some
have proposed or currently use content descriptors to
indicate if their products contain whole grains. General
Mills, for example, has three descriptors on its cereal
boxes indicating whether a cereal serving is an “excellent
source” of whole grains (16 grams or more per
serving), a “good source” of whole grains
(8 to less than 16 grams), or “made with”
whole grains (at least 8 grams).
Other important food industry sectors are also involved
in the whole-grains story. Foodservice operators and
retailers are adding more whole-grain items. For example,
in January 2005, Noodles & Company introduced a
whole-grain fettuccine to the menus in all of its restaurants.
In February, the Grain Foods Foundation, a joint venture
of the milling and baking industry, launched a $3.5-million
Grains for LIFE campaign to educate the public about
the benefits of whole-grain and refined-grain foods.
While the food industry has been responsive to the potential
for increased whole-grain demand, the number of new
products is still far below low-fat and low-carb product
introductions. This responsiveness will likely accelerate
in the face of actual increases in demand for whole
Impact on Grain Producers Depends on Many Factors
In general, it takes less raw grain to produce a whole-grain
product than a similar refined product. Whole-grain
products use most of the grain kernel while refined-grain
products lack most of the bran. For example, whole-wheat
flour uses about 25 percent less wheat than refined
flour (see “If Consumers Follow the Guidelines:
A Wheat Case Study”).
The remaining byproducts from refined-flour milling
are diverted to secondary uses. Bran, for example, is
used as an ingredient in food products and livestock
feed. A shift from refined-grain to whole-grain products
could reduce the quantity of grain milled and supplies
of byproducts for secondary markets.
The net effect on grain producers of a shift to whole-grain
products will depend on a myriad of factors, including
the type of grain demanded by food processors and the
location of the producer. Wheat farmers in the Midwestern,
South-Central, and Eastern United States favored by
longer growing seasons and more abundant rainfall would
find it easier to switch to other crops.
The eventual impact on grain producers will also depend
on the interaction of market forces in domestic and
foreign markets. In the United States, other commodity
markets would interact to lessen adjustments in the
grain market due to a shift to whole-grain products.
For example, farmers may use a larger share of corn
and sorghum instead of wheat byproducts in livestock
rations. In international markets, if domestic demand
drops for wheat grain, there may be larger U.S. supplies
available for export to countries such as Egypt, Japan,
and Mexico, three of our largest foreign wheat markets.
In the longer term, as companies develop new processing
methods and whole-grain products that appeal to consumers,
domestic demand for grains will likely increase.
Consumers’ reactions to the new Dietary Guidelines
will help determine the mix of grains grown by farmers
and the mix of products supplied by manufacturers and
served by restaurateurs. Nutrition and farm policy analysts
are watching to see how the whole-grains story unfolds.
Only then will the Guidelines’ true impacts on
Americans’ nutritional health and on U.S. agriculture