Some of the world’s largest food companies including ConAgra, General Mills and Kellogg have been arguing in recent months over how to define one of the industry’s most important health trends. David Robertson reports on the whole grain debate.

The dispute centres on how to market the benefits of whole grains – an ingredient that consumers are starting to realise offers substantial health benefits compared with refined flour.

Food manufacturers have responded to this demand but disagree on how the benefits of whole grains should be promoted. This has become a particularly important issue to the food industry as whole grains have played a large role in bringing consumers back to bread and cereals after the low-carb/Atkins fad of two years ago.

At the start of this year the US government’s new dietary guidelines concluded that people should eat three, one-ounce (16g) servings of whole grains a day.

Nutritionists and scientists want people to eat more whole grains because they contain vitamins, minerals, phytoestrogens, antioxidants and phenols – all of which are considered to play an important role in reducing the risk of chronic disease.

How well do you really know your competitors?

Access the most comprehensive Company Profiles on the market, powered by GlobalData. Save hours of research. Gain competitive edge.

Company Profile – free sample

Thank you!

Your download email will arrive shortly

Not ready to buy yet? Download a free sample

We are confident about the unique quality of our Company Profiles. However, we want you to make the most beneficial decision for your business, so we offer a free sample that you can download by submitting the below form

By GlobalData
Visit our Privacy Policy for more information about our services, how we may use, process and share your personal data, including information of your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications. Our services are intended for corporate subscribers and you warrant that the email address submitted is your corporate email address.

Whole grain products are often also high in fibre, which helps to reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Unclear labelling

But consumers looking to get their daily whole grain requirements will struggle to find the information they need on food packages.

Jeff Dahlberg, chairman of the Whole Grains Council, wrote to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in October and explained: “At a time when the 2005 Dietary Guidelines call for all Americans to consume at least three servings of whole grains, many people have been unsure how to find whole grains on the grocery shelves.”

Given that only one in ten people manage to reach this quantity of whole grain in their daily diets (and 40% get no whole grains at all) there is clearly a need to educate consumers – and a number of companies have leapt at this opportunity.

‘Citizen Petition’

General Mills wrote to the FDA last year with a ‘Citizen Petition’ asking the regulator to officially sanction marketing claims that could be put on packaging. General Mills suggested that a product could be said to be a “good source of whole grains” if it contained at least 8g. An “excellent source” should contain at least 16g.

These minimums were quickly adopted by many of the biggest food companies in America including Kellogg, Kraft and Pepperidge Farms (Campbell Soup).

Consumers were already familiar with this language as the FDA sanctions the words “good source” and “excellent source” for other food types. General Mills believed the use of this language would help consumers easily identify the highest-content whole-grain products.

Also, consumers would be able work out how to meet their daily whole grain requirement: it is three servings of any food labelled “an excellent source of whole grains”.

Manufacturers ahead of FDA

Although the FDA put off making a decision on officially sanctioning the 8/16g guidelines, food companies have started to reformulate their products, adding more whole grains so they can use “good source” and “excellent source” labels on their packaging.

General Mills reformulated all its Big G cereals at the end of last year so they contained at least 16g of whole grains. Spokeswoman MaryBeth Thorsgaard said: “By reformulating our cereals Americans are eating 1.5 billion more whole grain servings than before. We’ve been able to do this without our consumers having to make any changes in buying and eating habits.”

Nearly every other major bread and cereal manufacturer has also reformulated products or introduced new ones to take advantage of consumer interest in this health trend.

However, not everybody agrees that using the 8/16g guidelines works. ConAgra, one of the biggest agribusinesses in the world, wrote to the FDA earlier this year to suggest using a 5/10g split. ConAgra insisted that only a few products would be able to make content claims if the minimums were officially recognised as 8/16g. This, it said, would create an “unequal playing field”.

Aspirational or realistic?

ConAgra’s decision to buck an emerging industry standard has infuriated many food executives. Critics of ConAgra’s position argue that the minimums should be set at a level where companies aspire to reach them rather than lowering them to a level where existing products qualify.

Industry sources have also pointed out that ConAgra might be trying to protect its Ultragrain – a non-genetically modified grain developed for use in products like white bread but with the added benefit of 30% whole grain. Ultragrain is being used by many big food companies including Sara Lee but will almost certainly contain insufficient whole grain to meet the General Mills target of 8/16g per serving.

The FDA came back with a decision in December: it ducked the issue of whether the minimums should be 8/16g or 5/10g and rejected the General Mills’ petition.

Judi Adams, president of the Grain Foods Foundation, said: “Factual or merely quantitative numbers without context can misrepresent the true whole grain dietary contribution of a food. Labels such as “made with”, “good”, or “excellent” sources are simple and familiar descriptors. They are important terms to help consumers make knowledgeable food choices and to assure that the food contains significant amounts of whole grains before making any content claims.”

General Mills spokeswoman MaryBeth Thorsgaard refused to criticise the FDA decision, saying: “We are very encouraged that the FDA acknowledges that consumers benefit from having more whole grain in their diets. We will continue to work with the FDA to try to find an industry standard for whole grain content claims.”

Fibre and whole grain are not interchangeable

The FDA’s refusal to back the General Mills content standard will anger many nutritionists who have argued that the food industry is using whole grains as a marketing gimmick. They say companies are promoting products as sources of whole grain when these products still contain high quantities of refined flour, and/or low quantities of fibre.

(The relationship between fibre and whole grain is complex but it is possible for a product to claim whole grain benefits but be low in fibre, which most nutritionists agree removes one of the main benefits of eating whole grains.)

However, with consumers wanting healthier foods it will remain in the industry’s best interests to continue working towards FDA approval of their marketing claims. It is to be hoped that the food industry will remember that these claims are for the benefit of consumers and not corporations.