Whole-grain emphasis good for the breadbasket

Wheat Harvest - MT: aerials of wheat fields with grain combines at work
New dietary guidelines that tout the benefits of whole grains are seen as a boon for grain growers in the heartland.Robb Kendrick / Aurora file
/ Source: Kansas City Business Journal

The newly released Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 trumpet whole-grain foods as the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Here in America's breadbasket, that's good news.

The guidelines recommend one or two fewer daily servings of grain products, but Virgil Smail, the head of the grain science department at Kansas State University, said actual consumption should increase because of the guidelines' emphasis on whole grains as insurance against obesity, heart disease and colorectal cancer.

The new guidelines, which also contain a broader "carbs are good" mantra, therefore should be a boon to Midwest grain farmers, millers and the Kansas City Board of Trade, where more than 10 billion bushels of hard red winter wheat are traded annually.

Additionally, they should put an end to the Atkins Diet excuse for struggling baking-industry firms, sources said.

Pasta vindicated
In November, Kansas City-based American Italian Pasta Co. blamed its $12.2 million fourth-quarter loss, in part, on decreased pasta consumption because of low-carb diets.

But on Jan. 17, five days after the new dietary guidelines were jointly issued by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, the company was singing a new tune.

"The reduced-carb push really used pasta as a poster child for what was a bad carb," said Drew Lericos, director of marketing innovation for American Italian Pasta.

The new guidelines vindicate pasta as one of the good, or complex, carbohydrates, he said.

"They also say that 45 to 65 percent of total calories should come from carbohydrates," Lericos said. "We're pretty upbeat about that."

Lericos said he expects sales of American Italian Pasta's traditional products, which are made from refined and enriched semolina flour, to head back up this year.

In addition, the company is considering new offerings in the whole-grain and multigrain areas.

American Italian Pasta has had success with its Heartland brand whole-grain pasta line, which it sells exclusively to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. But the company is not in a hurry to rush a whole-grain product to the grocery market, where it would compete with an existing whole-grain line made by New World Pasta Co.

"The cost to bring a new product to market in grocery is not minimal," Lericos said. "So instead of coming out with a 'me too'-type product, we would prefer to come out with one that's more innovative and meets more consumer needs."

Waiting, watching
Overland Park-based Applebee's International Inc. also is taking a wait-and-see approach to additional whole-grain products.

"The guidelines are very new, so we haven't had time to fully digest them — no pun intended," Applebee's spokeswoman Laurie Ellison said.

Applebee's already serves a couple of whole-grain products: a whole-wheat bun with its Tango Chicken Salad and whole-wheat tortillas with its Sizzling Chicken Skillet.

"But overall, we believe the desire for more whole grains will evolve, and we will respond accordingly," Ellison said.

To date, sales of whole-grain products have been limited by their relatively bland taste compared with refined-grain products.

K-State's Smail said that could change, thanks to a new product from ConAgra Foods Inc. A new whole-grain flour called Ultragrain is designed to look and taste like white flour while retaining the healthful bran and germ that is milled out of white breads.

He predicted an explosion of such flour products, as well as "a whole slew of whole-grain pasta, muffins, cookies, even doughnuts."

Janette Gelroth, manager of the nutrition analytical labs at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan., said wheat farmers and millers won't be hurt by a shift to whole grains.

No bad whole grain?
Whole-grain varieties of all types of wheat — soft, hard, white, red, winter and spring — were shown to have equal health effects in a recent K-State study. Millers simply will have to adjust the percentages of refined- and whole-grain flours they produce, Gelroth said.

The new guidelines do not condemn refined-grain flours, such as those used in white bread, she said. But white bread does metabolize quicker, causing a greater fat-producing insulin spike, Gelroth said.

For that reason, "a bread manufacturer who has 90 percent of their production in white bread might experience a detrimental impact" from the new guidelines, she said.

Kansas City-based Interstate Bakeries Corp. knows that.

The Wonder Bread manufacturer filed for bankruptcy in September, citing as one of its problems an 8.3 percent decline in white bread sales during its past fiscal year.

Meanwhile, the company introduced a number of whole-grain products, including its popular Baker's Inn brand, which was honored as the best new bakery product of the year during the Retailer Choice Awards in May.

Interstate Bakeries officials could not be reached for comment, but Gelroth said it's clear that the company and other bakers will have to put even more emphasis on whole grains.

Meanwhile, companies are waiting to see what will happen with the new guidelines-based Food Guidance System, currently known as a Food Guide Pyramid. The new guidance system, due out in the spring, is expected to recommend that consumption of grain products be reduced from six to 11 daily servings to five to 10.

Only 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans plan their diets according to the federal dietary guidelines and food guidance systems, which are published every five years, Gelroth said.

She said many people will act on the buzz phrases the guidelines contain, such as low-fat, sugar-free, low-carb and, now, whole-grain.