Nestle, General Mills in vanguard: Food industry embraces whole grain as next savior

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Whole grains are the food industry's next holy grail.

As the low-carb frenzy ebbs in favor of an obsession with healthier high fiber, Nestle and General Mills have begun touting whole-grain offerings and a slew of others from Frito-Lay to Kraft Foods have signed on to a consortium that touts whole grains.

ConAgra, Campbell Soup Co., Frito-Lay, General Mills and Kraft "have publicly committed to increasing the level of whole grains in their portfolios by signing on with the Whole Grains Council," said Cynthia Harriman, director of the recently formed organization. Created by nonprofit food-issues think tank Oldways Preservation Trust, which promoted the Mediterranean diet in the '90s, the council is intended to increase the consumption of whole grains.

Ms. Harriman said marketers are "all definitely paying attention" and many, both large and small, have major launches on the horizon. A conference Nov. 14-16 in New Orleans will address issues including how to develop whole-grain products that fit the current cooking times, tastes and prices of the processed refined grains most commonly used by mainstream marketers and most accepted by consumers.

The expected wave of new products and marketing comes as the USDA prepares to revise its Food Guide Pyramid next year to recommend at least three one-ounce servings of whole grains daily. High-fiber diets have increasingly been linked in scientific studies and in the news with the prevention of cancer, heart disease, obesity and diabetes among other health benefits.

staying ahead of curve

"A lot of companies are anticipating the changes in dietary guidelines and making some fairly big shifts to avoid criticism or to show they are ahead of the curve," said David Grotto, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association and director of nutrition for the Block Center for Integrated Cancer Care. Additionally, he said, consumers are rebelling against the low-carb craze and there is a concerted effort to educate people about the healthfulness of whole grains and that "not all carbs are created equal."

General Mills last month said it would reformulate the cereals in its lineup to make them all either a "good" or "excellent" source of whole grain. As first reported on AdAge.com, Nestle plans to launch a whole-grain based Spa Cuisine line for its Stouffer's Lean Cuisine line made with whole-grain rice and pastas. TV and print ads for the eight-variety line, which break in March from Havas' Euro RSCG, New York, will entreat consumers to "Do something good for yourself," and aim to reassure them about the line's ability to balance taste with health benefits.

Taste has historically been a barrier to shifting to more nutritious offerings, as "common misperceptions are that [whole grains] take hours to cook and taste like cardboard," Whole Grains Council's Ms. Harriman said.

refined texture

ConAgra's Food Ingredients unit is testing Ultragrain, a natural, whole-grain flour that it bills as having the nutrition benefits of whole grain with the taste and texture of refined flours. Don Brown, VP-marketing for Milled Ingredients at the unit said that Ultragrain-based products are being tested or in the R&D stage by a "large number" of retail and food-service manufacturers across categories including pizza, cookies, crackers and bakery mixes. Some customers, he said, have approached ConAgra with the idea of licensing the Ultragrain mark for use on packaging in the same way as Splenda has been used to signify low-carb items.

"If products can taste great and provide health benefits that's a huge marketing advantage," said Allison Cleary, senior editor for Eating Well magazine, who cited a recent statistic showing that 16% of all new items have a functional marketing claim.

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