Now that we have come upon April, May and June will quickly follow, and the school year will come to a close. That means it’s time for kids to get their report cards.

As we close our first year under the new National School Lunch Program (NSLP) guidelines, it might also be a good time for us to stop and take time to give ourselves a report card—a nutritional report card. As an industry, have we fostered better nutritional intake over the past year? Are we making it easier for people to meet the minimum requirements for positive nutrients?

Whole-grain nutrition

Whole grains remain a key aspect of daily nutrition. USDA guidelines recommend adults eat at least three servings of whole grains every day. To support achieving this guideline, one recent NSLP change is the requirement for all grain-based products to be whole-grains-rich, meaning at least 50 percent of the grain must be whole-grain, and the remaining grain must be enriched. This requirement has had food manufacturers scrambling to create products that meet these guidelines.

Getting Americans to change their taste preferences and eat more whole grains has been a bit of a struggle. The Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), Harleysville, PA, has conducted a health-and-wellness survey for more than 10 years. Diane Ray, vice president at NMI, says: “We found that 85 percent of respondents purchased whole-grain products in 2014. However, that number is only slightly higher than 10 years ago, when the percentage was 80 percent. After millions of dollars in spending from the government, manufacturers and health organizations, the increase is a modest 5 percent. Furthermore, in that same study, 27 percent of respondents admitted that their diet was deficient in whole grains.”

These numbers dovetail with findings in a joint study conducted by General Mills and the University of Minnesota in 2009–2010, which found that only 3 percent of children and 8 percent of adults are actually consuming the recommended amounts of whole grain.

So it would seem that while most of us buy whole-grain products, few of us have incorporated whole grains into our diets to recommended levels. Some of the challenge for whole grains seems to be how to stake a steady claim in consumers’ minds when it comes to the benefits of consumption.

In the same health-and-wellness study, NMI found that while 37 percent of consumers linked whole-grain consumption to heart health in 2009. By 2014 that percentage had dropped to 15 percent. NMI found similar declines in consumers’ ability to link whole grains to digestive health and weight management. Ray hypothesizes that “the whole-grain message is being superseded by other messages, such as a push for GMO-free grains, low-carb and gluten-free diets. Consumer may just be confused on what to eat.”

Building better products

In addition to possible message confusion, consumers’ perception of the taste and appearance of whole-grain items also impacts how much whole grains they consume. Laura Gerhard, commercial manager, Cargill, Minneapolis, observes: “With many whole-grain products, taste is a challenge due to the bitterness of whole wheat. Consumers may know that whole grains are good for them, but they won’t compromise on taste, and this is especially true for children.”

Recognizing this hurdle, grain suppliers have created a variety of products that deliver whole-grain nutrition without compromising on taste. Don Trouba, marketing director, Ardent Mills, Denver, notes that one of the most-popular products his company sells is Ultragrain whole-wheat flour. “Ultragrain delivers whole-grain nutrition with white flour appeal and is helping to meet the guidelines without sacrificing taste, texture or appearance.” His company hopes that “as children experience these foods at school, there is a greater likelihood that they will want to see the same foods in the grocery store.” As a result, the company has seen a number of manufacturers who have co-branded their products with the ingredient.

Cargill has a line of whole-grain corn products under the MaizeWise brand that can directly replace existing ingredients or blend with them to deliver 100 percent whole-grain nutrition. The ingredient range includes corn flour, corn meal and masa flour. According to Gerhard, the ingredients are great for kid-friendly products like taco shells, pizza crust, extruded snacks, tortillas, cereals and pasta.

Diversifying the snack segment

John Hatfield, vice president, Honeyville, Brigham City, UT, observes that “any product group that utilizes grains in breads, cereals, pastries or bars has put a lot of emphasis on their development teams to incorporate whole grains into almost all new product innovations.” The company offers traditional wheat flours, as well as multiple specialty flours like almond, coconut, buckwheat, millet and more.

Ancient and specialty grains are a small but rapidly growing ingredient segment. Ancient grains include quinoa, amaranth, chia, millet, buckwheat, teff, sorghum and einkorn wheat. Zachery Sanders, marketing director, Ardent Mills, remarks that ancient grains “provide whole-grain nutrition and also deliver unique appearance, exotic interest and culinary authenticity.”

As snacking behavior remains a strong kid and adult trend, incorporating whole grains into snack products is important. Grain and flour suppliers have also created new products that improve the nutritional profile and increase satiety. Ardent Mills recently introduced a high-fiber barley called Sustagrain. The ingredient has three times the fiber of oats and 10 times the fiber of brown rice, making it perhaps the highest-fiber whole grain on the market today. Sanders notes that this ingredient provides a good solution for numerous applications, including bars, crackers and extruded snacks.

Specialty grains include sprouted grains and multigrain blends of cracked and rolled grains. NMI has found that interest in sprouted grains has almost doubled over the past two years, from 5 percent to 8 percent of respondents indicating they want more sprouted grains in their diet. Ardent Mills offers Sprouted White Spring Whole Wheat Flour to meet demand for sprouted-grain products.

With interest building in specialty grains, the biggest challenge is availability. Hatfield says, “As farmers consider what crops to grow, they are now faced with questions about their ability to grow more than just wheat, barley and rye.” This means that large manufacturers now have to analyze their projections carefully, know what they need and research if the supply chain can sustain growth. “As demand increases, the simple question of availability often weighs heavily on the minds of buyers,” he says.

 So while our eating habits show we still need some schooling on how to better incorporate whole grains into our diet, grain suppliers and ingredient manufacturers deserve an “A” for their efforts to adapt to changing regulations and consumer demand.