The address by the cereal giant's Carolyn Good was part of a track session on whole grains in breakfast foods, presented at the ongoing World Grains Summit in San Francisco.
According to Good, General Mills opted to reformulate its cereals after realizing the scope of opportunity it had to introduce more whole grains into the American diet. The company's research revealed that most consumers knew that whole grains were healthy, but some of their perceptions were "based on misperceptions" , such as the idea that whole gains taste bad, or that they are present only in brown goods, not white.
In addition, three quarters of consumers thought they were receiving enough whole grains, compared to the more accurate figure of only 10 percent of the population.
"There was confusion about what whole grain really was, and that's where we saw the opportunity to bring more whole grains to the US diet," said Good.
Whole grains have received considerable attention in the last year, especially in the US where the FDA permits foods that contain at least 51 percent whole grains by weight and that are low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol to carry a health claim, which links them to a reduced risk of heart disease and certain cancers.
Indeed, the term whole grain is considered to be more consumer-friendly than the term fiber, which leads some manufacturers to favor it on product packaging since it is likely to strike more of a chord of recognition for its healthy benefits.
High blood pressure is known to increase the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases. Amongst other factors, elevated cholesterol can contribute to high blood pressure since the latter is caused by a narrowing of the arteries or loss of elasticity.
In January 2005, General Mills converted all of its Big G cereals to include at least half a serving of whole grains in each bowl. This essentially added 1.5 billion servings of whole grains to the American diet per year. That equates to 27 million servings per day.
However, the transition did not occur without significant challenges, including sourcing issues, handling of the products, their stability, processing and functionality. Taste was also a major issue, as this had to be equal to or better than a product's original taste.
"This was a massive cross-functional coordinative effort that involved a number of developmental changes," said Good.
Another crucial issue faced by General Mills was how to communicate its initiative to consumers. The company's research had revealed that consumers preferred factual statements they were familiar with - such as "excellent source" or "made with" . But such uniform terms did not exist, presenting the company with another challenge.
The lack of formal definitions for the whole grain content of foods prompted General Mills to file a petition with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), requiring the establishment of standard descriptions.
But in November 2005, the FDA denied the petition, based on the need to "prevent false and misleading food labeling statements," which would lead to consumer confusion on the implied nutrient content of whole grain foods.
One step General Mills took to partly overcome this obstacle was to leverage the "power of the cereal box" . On average, consumers read their cereal box 2.7 times, said the firm, which used its boxes as a way to communicate its whole grains message. In collaboration with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the firm used the government's food guide pyramid on its boxes.
According to the company's latest figures, 4 in 10 consumers now claim to be eating more whole grains. However, together with much of the grain-based industry, General Mills remains in expectation of news from the FDA on the regulatory fate of whole grains.
In February this year, the agency released proposed draft guidance on whole grain label statements. It received responses from over 20 companies, which are now eagerly waiting for the FDA to revise the public comments.
In the meantime, Good suggests that a collaborative effort is crucial to keep the whole grain momentum going. This should involve consumers, scientists, educators, policy makers and marketers, she said.