Nearly two-thirds of the 1,500 participants surveyed in August told Oldways that they have increased whole grain consumption “some” or “a lot” in the past five years. In addition, roughly a third said they nearly always choose whole grains, which is up dramatically from just 4% five years ago, according to the survey.
Another 32% say they choose whole grains about half the time, which means 63% of consumers are meeting the dietary guideline to make half their grains whole, said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies at Oldways.
She explained to FoodNavigator-USA that a major reason for the increased consumption is manufacturers are creating better tasting whole grain options now than they did even just a few years ago.
“Way back, manufacturers though they could just take the white grains out and replace them whole grain,” but that didn’t adequately highlight the sweet and nutty flavor potential of whole grains, which are more noticeable and enjoyable in more sophisticated approaches, she said.
Now, she added, 40% of consumers surveyed by Oldways say they choose whole grains for their “delicious taste.”
Even though manufacturers have made progress creating better tasting whole grain products, perceptions about flavor are still a barrier to some consumers eating more whole grains, Harriman said.
Manufacturers can help consumers overcome this barrier by lowering the risk of trying whole grain products, Harriman said. For example, she lauded how when Barilla launched its whole wheat pasta it offered to give consumers a coupon for a free box of its semolina pasta if they tried and didn’t like the whole wheat pasta.
Health benefits spur consumption
Consumption of whole grains also is on the rise because consumers increasingly understand the health benefits they offer, Harriman said.
The survey found 86% of respondents chose whole grains for their health benefits – a percentage Harriman thinks could climb as new studies are published that support whole grains lowering the risk of chronic disease.
Overcoming other barriers
Other barriers that could hinder increased consumption of whole grains are a higher price point and limited availability, Harriman said.
She explained more retailers offer a wide selection of whole grain products, but they are harder to come by in food service and restaurants.
She acknowledged that whole grain products cost more than refined grain products because there is less demand and therefore the production costs are not as low.
Recognizing the catch-22, she added that “if we can work to a point where whole grain products are not sold at a premium that will help drive increased consumption.”
Ancient grains may not be as hot as thought
Ancient grains may be a trendy talking point for manufacturers and consumers, but few shoppers actually buy and consider as favorites quinoa, teff and farro, the Oldways survey found.
“This is another case of saying one thing and doing another,” Harriman said.
For example, she said she was surprised to find only 55% of people surveyed had heard of quinoa and of them only 33% had eaten and only 17% said it was a favorite.
Rather, consumers still favor the classic whole grains. More than half said whole wheat was their favorite, 47% said oats, 41% favor brown rice and 37% said corn was their favorite, the survey found.
That said, consumer preferences are slowly shifting, if the types of products launching is any indication.
Analysis of products with the Oldways’ Whole Grain stamp show only 32% of new products seeking the stamp in 2015 listed whole wheat as the first ingredient compared to 59% of the products awarded the stamp in 2007-2009, Harriman said.
She explained that while the length of time in her comparison was different, the number of actual products was the same.
Her analysis also showed more products in 2015 listed barley and rye as the first ingredient and the percentage of products with “other grains,” such as spelt, rose to 42% in 2015 from 20% in 2007-2009.
This shift suggests consumers are interested in ancient and whole grains, but more education and awareness is necessary for them to reach their full marketing potential.