June 2010 Issue

Whole Grain Guidance — Help Consumers Navigate the Food Landscape to Make the Most Nutritious Selections
By Maggie Moon, MS, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 12 No. 6 P. 26

Researchers, public health advocates, and healthcare professionals are among those who have been pushing for an increase in the public’s whole grain intake. Americans are increasingly aware of their “whole grain gap” and are trying to incorporate grains into their diet more often. In addition, key players in the foodscape, including the food industry, the media, supermarkets, and restaurants, have clearly heard the call. Consider that there are more than 15-fold more new whole grain products in the marketplace today compared with one decade ago.

As RDs, we want our clients to reap the health benefits of whole grains and can appreciate the widespread interest in increasing intake. However, there are still challenges when it comes to evaluating products, leveraging magazine coverage, finding menu options when dining out, and preparing your clients to cruise the supermarket aisles with success. RDs have an opportunity to pass along informed advice on whole grains in all of these areas.

A Status Update
In assessing how the nation is faring with the recommendation to make one half of the day’s grains whole, RDs have reasons to see both the positive and the negative. On the one hand, nearly nine out of 10 Americans aren’t reaching for whole grains often enough to meet the minimum recommendations. On average, Americans from all age groups (the ages of 2 to 55 and older) consume less than one serving per day (range of 0.56 to 0.82 servings per day) and their intake of whole grains is anywhere from 9% to 13.7% of total grain intake.1 Furthermore, four out of 10 Americans consume less than one whole grain product during two weeks of their usual eating habits.1

On the other hand, ever since Americans became more aware of their whole grain gap during the 2005 round of updates to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, there has been a 20% increase in intake (2005 to 2008 data), according to the Whole Grains Council, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group in Boston; this was after seven years of holding steady (1998 to 2005). Even better, younger populations are making headway: Whole grain intake rose even more in young adults aged 18 to 34 by a higher-than-average 38%.1

The upward trend is encouraging. However, to put it into context, recall that data from the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Report showed that Americans had a long way to go. Data available in 2005 showed that Americans fell drastically short of whole grain recommendations and would need to increase their intake by about 200% to 500% to even meet the minimum recommendation to make one half of their grains whole.2

The good news for RDs is that consumers continue to show a strong interest in whole grains. Results from the International Food Council’s 2009 Food & Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes Toward Food, Nutrition & Health revealed whole grains as one of the top three foods that respondents were likely to choose for their own health and their children’s health. Further, when people were asked to name foods or food components with health benefits, one half of the top six foods were whole grain related: whole grains, fiber, and oats/oat bran/oatmeal. Most often cited were whole grains’ protective effect against the risk of heart disease (83%) and promotion of digestive health (86%). In addition, the data show that four out of five people are trying to eat more whole grains and two out of three people are trying to reduce their refined grains intake.

The Food Industry Environment
Last year, manufacturers launched more than 3,000 new products with a whole grain claim, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database. By comparison, in 2000, only 164 new products boasted whole grain content. The largest growth areas are bakery, breakfast cereals, and snacks followed by side dishes and meals. That breakfast cereals are one of the top-growing areas for new whole grain products is significant because U.S. consumers eat most of their whole grains at breakfast (57%).1 In addition, eating ready-to-eat cereal is the main way in which American adults and children are including whole grains in their diets.3

In 2005, General Mills committed to providing at least 8 g of whole grains per serving in its Big G cereals. Other whole grain ready-to-eat cereals available today include Barbara’s Bakery Shredded Wheat, Post Selects Great Grains with Raisins, Dates & Pecans, Cascadian Farm Hearty Morning, and Kashi GOLEAN Crunch! Honey Almond Flax.

Acknowledging that breakfast cereals contribute a significant portion of whole grains to the American diet, RDs can guide their clients toward the better choices, such as those listed previously. It may also be helpful to review potential labeling confusion with clients (see Guiding Clients on Labeling Issues).

Grains in Print
The Whole Grains Council recently audited 10 national consumer magazines to answer the question: Do magazines make one half of their grains whole? Overall, the answer was no, after the council evaluated the magazines based on print mentions of whole grains in articles and recipes as well as the accompanying images.

Some publications fared better than others. Four clear leaders devoted 32% to 39% of their total grains coverage to whole grains (in descending order): O, The Oprah Magazine; Parents; Good Housekeeping; and Woman’s Day. But the survey revealed that consumer magazines tend to write about whole grains more than they use them in recipes or photos.1 In other words, while they provide articles that discuss the benefits of whole grains, consumer magazines don’t always show the same amount of enthusiasm for whole grains when it comes to practical applications. It breaks the link between the reasons to consume more whole grains and the real-world strategies that help consumers put that advice into practice.

To fill the gap, RDs could try suggesting ways that clients can make easy substitutions in their favorite magazine recipes, being sure to provide guidance on notable changes (eg, the greater water-to-rice ratio when substituting brown rice for white rice in a recipe).

Zero in on Healthful Choices in Restaurants
For better or worse, your clients may find themselves in chain restaurants from time to time. Helping them zero in on a menu’s whole grain choices will allow them to make better nutritional choices in the face of limited options. On the upside, some chain restaurants have revamped their menus to cater to customers interested in lighter, more healthful options, and many offer at least one whole grain menu item.

Results from a review1 of the 30 largest food chains in the United States, as determined by Restaurants & Institutions magazine, found that more than one third offered at least one whole grain option. Among the top 10 chains, McDonald’s offers a line of Premium Chicken Sandwiches whose bun contains 8 g of whole grain; Starbucks offers oatmeal; and Pizza Hut offers The Natural pizza, which contains 8 g of whole grains per serving. Notable for going beyond a whole wheat bread or pizza crust were Jack in the Box with its chicken fajita in a whole grain pita; TGI Friday’s with its Dragonfire Chicken stir-fry with brown rice, which is available for any meal upon request; and Olive Garden with its policy to allow a whole wheat linguini substitution in any pasta dish.

Navigate the Aisles With Knowledge
In a single-store survey1, the Whole Grains Council found that about 35% of the grain foods in a northeast town’s major supermarket were whole grain ones. Granola, hot cereals (eg, oatmeal), cold cereals, and granola bars were the four categories whose product offerings were at least 50% whole grain. However, these same categories, with the exception of cold cereal, made up a relatively small portion of the overall number of grain foods available. Overall, the largest categories were cookies, crackers, cold cereal, dry pasta, and bread. Again, with the exception of cold cereal, the preceding types of products were associated with far more refined grain foods than not.

Fortunately, the supermarket venue provides additional help from RDs. Whether they are in-house or at the corporate level, supermarket RDs are adding value to customers looking for more healthful options to fill their grocery carts. Here is a roundup of expert advice and insights courtesy of supermarket dietitians across the United States:

• “I love to highlight popcorn as a whole grain—it’s always a surprise,” shares Heidi Diller, RD, corporate nutritionist for SUPERVALU in Fullerton, Calif. Diller also likes to bring attention to frozen and precooked shelf-stable brown rice. “With convenience being the focus of so many customers,” she says. “the a-ha moment is that not all convenience food is bad for you.”

• Popcorn and 10-minute instant brown rice are also favorites of Cindy Silver, MS, RD, LDN, corporate nutritionist for Lowes Foods in Winston-Salem, N.C., as are corn tortillas. Quinoa is a popular favorite and is on Silver’s radar and that of Tyra M. Carter, PhD, RD, LD, corporate dietitian for Market  Street United in the northern Texas area.

• “The alternative grains are my favorite,” says Maya E Nahra, RD, LD, health and wellness educator for Sunflower Farmers Market in Phoenix. In addition to quinoa, Nahra likes to feature whole wheat couscous and wild rice. “They are often the forgotten grains; however, offering simple recipes for exciting new meals and highlighting their inexpensive prices always result in a win-win situation,” she notes.

• Sylvia B. Emberger, RD, LDN, corporate nutritionist for Giant Food Stores in Carlisle, Pa., likes to recommend “good old-fashioned oatmeal for breakfast—the kind that comes in a canister.” She advises her customers that “it’s a good start to the day and to a heart-healthy diet. Best of all, oatmeal is economical, microwaves in 2 minutes, and helps keep hunger at bay until lunch.”

• Emberger says, “Whole grains give you something to sink your teeth into. The flavors, colors, and textures of whole grain products are complex and provide an interesting eating experience.”

• Diller’s take on whole grains is that “it’s like eating a whole apple; we know there are antioxidants that are in the skin of the apple to keep it from oxidizing as well as fiber, and the same goes for the grain seed. When processors take away the bran and the germ to make refined flour, it’s like just eating the applesauce, whose fiber and nutrients have been removed. We all know the whole apple is better than fortified applesauce. The same principle applies to the grain seed: Whole is better.”

• Nahra sees whole grains in the context of our nation’s public health. “We’re turning the page toward disease prevention,” she says. “Whole grains supply a hefty dose of almighty fiber, helping to shuttle out excess cholesterol, optimize digestive health, and lower risk of obesity. With good fat, fiber, and their satisfyingly filling ways, whole grains never looked so good.”

• Silver says encouraging Americans to eat more whole grains “nudges everyone in the direction of more nutrient-rich foods, which is fantastic.” Emberger agrees: “Eating as many whole foods as possible, including whole grains, gives us a better chance of obtaining the nutrients that nature intended.”

• Talking about whole grains and health “just makes sense” to Tina Miller, MS, RD, healthy living advisor for Meijer Super Stores in Canton, Mich. “Whole grains are essential for digestive health and for promoting a healthy weight,” she says. “Carbohydrates are not the enemy; just choose them wisely.”

Guiding Clients on Labeling Issues
Labeling on grain foods, like many packaged goods, can confuse consumers. Some foods bear a Whole Grain Stamp issued by the Whole Grains Council, which is helpful but not universal. The following are some tips that may be beneficial to your clients:

• Many whole grain ingredients contain the word “whole” in their name (eg, whole wheat), but there are others that don’t (eg, brown rice, oats, oatmeal, wheatberries).

• Ingredients that are never whole grain are enriched flour, degerminated corn meal, bran, and wheat germ.

• Sometimes descriptors such as “durum,” “semolina,” “organic,” or “multigrain” appear on packaging, but these terms don’t necessarily mean the ingredient contains whole grain.

• When the first ingredient is a refined grain and the second ingredient is a whole grain, there’s a chance that the food in question could contain anywhere from 1% to 49% whole grain.

• When it comes to whole grains, fiber is important, but it’s not everything. Fiber content in whole grains varies; in addition, some high-fiber products contain bran or other added fiber without providing much whole grain.

Opportunities for RDs
As RDs, we can agree that getting our clients to eat more whole grains is a step in the right direction. The food industry, media, restaurants, and supermarkets can help by providing sound nutritional choices in product lines; in magazine articles, recipes, and photos; on the menu; and on grocery store shelves. And it’s RDs who are well positioned to make credible, practical recommendations in all of these areas with the goal of improving overall public health.

— Maggie Moon, MS, RD, is a nutrition writer based in New York City who also works as a supermarket RD, consultant, and guest speaker.


1. Whole Grains Council. Are we there yet? Measuring progress on making at least half our grains whole. Presented at: Make Half Your Grains Whole Conference; April 20-22, 2009; Alexandria, Va. Available at: http://www.wholegrainscouncil.org/files/3.AreWeThereYet.pdf. Accessed March 15, 2010.

2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Section 6: Selected food groups (fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and milk products). In: The Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005. Available at: http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/report/HTML/D6_SelectedFood.htm. Accessed March 15, 2010.

3. Bachman JL, Reedy J, Subar AF, Krebs-Smith SM. Sources of food group intakes among the US population, 2001-2002. J Am Diet Assoc. 2008;108(5):804-814.