ALEXANDRIA, VA. — Are consumers eating more whole grains? Data from market research firm NPD Group suggests growth of about 20% since 1998, with a much sharper growth rate since 2006. Room for even more growth exists as manufacturers get a better grasp on what demographics to target for new product launches, said Joe Derochowski, executive director of food and beverages at NPD.
An encouraging sign for whole grains manufacturers is the fact 60% of the population will eat at least one whole grain product in the next two weeks, Mr. Derochowski told participants at the "Make (at least!) half your grains whole" conference sponsored by the Whole Grains Council and Oldways Preservation Trust and held April 20-22 at the Westin Alexandria hotel in Alexandria.
"The biggest driver is just the increase in penetration — the number of bodies doing it," he said. "A good way of picturing it is about 180 million Americans in the next two weeks are going to eat a whole grain product. That’s very good news."
Currently, consumers over the age of 55 are eating the most whole grains, Mr. Derochowski said, citing NPD data. They are followed by the age brackets of 18 to 34, 35 to 54, and finally, 0 to 17. But as far as what group whole grains producers should be targeting, he pointed out that the 18- to 34-year-old group has grown the most since 1998, up 38%. The 55-and-over bracket, while making up the largest category of whole grains consumers, has grown 11% since 1998, trailing both the 18-to-34 group and the 35-to-54 group (23%). Whole grains consumers from birth to age 17 have grown 4%, he said.
As of the week ended April 15, Mr. Derochowski said whole grains remain the No. 1 item people are trying to get in their diets.
"It has been that way for a long time," he said. "So not only are we behaviorally doing more, attitudinally we want to get more. So at the end of the day, that’s good news."
Despite the growth, he said industry still is falling short on finding a way to dramatically make whole grains central in the diet.
"Only about 11% of all our grains are whole grains," he said. "It’s across all age groups. 55+ is doing the best, but we still have a long way to grow."
A key to increasing whole grains consumption may lie in trying to "fill the gaps," he said. NPD data shows the top five sources of grains are sandwiches, bread, pizza, Italian dishes and ready-to-eat cereal. In terms of top sources of whole grains, only R.-T.-E. cereal and bread are on the list.
"If you are looking for places to have us eat more whole grains, start right there," he said. "If you get 80% of that five, such as what we have with hot cereal, you’ll more than surpass the goal. If you get 50%, you’ve got to work your way down the list."
Beyond grain products, Mr. Derochowski pointed out that simply finding a way to be associated with the top foods (fruit, vegetables, sandwiches, bread, R.-T.-E. cereal, salads, salty snacks, potatoes, eggs, soups) may serve as a way to expand whole grains consumption. He added that the list of top foods has changed little from the past 30 years and likely will change little in the next 30.
"You’re goal is to make sure it’s whole grain sandwiches in 2032," he said.
The whole grains industry also would be well served to leverage the health aspects of their products, Mr. Derochowski said, but he cautioned the health message is not an easy one to deliver.
"For most of the population, health is about new," he said. "But for a certain section, health is about health. When you’re communicating the benefits, make sure you’re talking to the right person. And they both are right, just make sure you’re twisting it the right way."
He said the morning occasion is a great time to launch health products.
"It’s the most habitual meal, so it’s the easiest way to impact the diet," he said. "It’s okay to have the same food every day. Once you start getting to lunch, and especially dinner, it’s a much more varied occasion."
While cost, health and finding the right products to incorporate whole grains into all stand as key to driving whole grains consumption, the make or break point still remains taste.
"Our biggest driving force is taste," Mr. Derochowski said. "It’s kind of a cliff. We either have it or we don’t. So when it comes to whole grains we’ve got to make sure that that is built in."