Whole grains in the spotlight

by Eric Schroeder
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Schools will be required to offer only whole grain-rich products by the 2014-15 school year as part of the new nutrition standards for school meals set forth late last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the meantime, beginning this fall whole grain-rich products must make up half of all grain products offered to students, and refined grain foods that are enriched still may be included in the school menu.
For the most part, the final rule set forth by the U.S.D.A. regarding grains was in line with the department’s earlier proposed rule.

The new rule requires that after the first two years of implementation, all grains offered to students must contain at least 51% whole grains with the remaining grain content enriched. Until the whole grain content of food products is required on a product label by the Food and Drug Administration, schools must evaluate a grain product according to forthcoming Food and Nutrition Service guidance.

The guidance states that the serving of the food item must meet portion size requirements for the grains/bread component outlined by the F.N.S. and at least one of the following: (a) the whole grain per serving must be equal or greater than 8 grams; (b) the product includes the following F.D.A. approved whole grain health claim on its packaging, “Diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods and low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.”; or (c) product ingredient listing lists whole grain first, specifically non-mixed dishes like bread or cereal and mixed dishes such as pizza or corn dogs.

“While children generally eat enough total grains, most of the grains they consume are refined grains rather than whole grains,” the U.S.D.A. said. “Whole grains (e.g., whole wheat flour, oatmeal, whole cornmeal, and brown rice) are a source of nutrients such as iron, magnesium, selenium, B vitamins, and dietary fiber. Evidence suggests that eating whole grains in nutrient dense forms may lower body weight and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.”

The one area in which the final rule differed from the proposed rule had to do with grain-based desserts. The U.S.D.A. initially proposed allowing up to one serving of grain-based dessert per day to allow additional opportunities to incorporate whole grains in the lunch menu. But after the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans cited grain-based desserts as “a significant source of solid fats and added sugars in Americans’ diets,” the U.S.D.A. amended the rule. The final rule now reduces the number of allowable grain-based desserts from five to two per school week.

Adding whole grains will not be an inexpensive endeavor, the U.S.D.A. said. As a result of serving more vegetables and more fruit, and replacing refined grains with whole grains, the U.S.D.A. said it expects food costs will increase by 2.5c per lunch served on initial implementation of the final rule requirements. Two years after implementation, when the fruit requirement is phased in for breakfast, and when all grains served at breakfast and lunch must be whole grain rich, food costs will increase by 5c per lunch and 14c per breakfast, the U.S.D.A. said.

Despite the expected rise in overall cost for breakfast and lunch, the total amount of grain products served will be less after implementation of the final rule than the amount currently served, according to the U.S.D.A. As a result, the added cost of serving higher price whole grain products about equals the savings from a reduction in grain products served, the U.S.D.A. noted.

Changes coming to product offerings
Audene Chung, M.B.A., R.D., vice-president of Chartwells School Dining Services, which provides dining services for more than 550 public school districts and private schools, said it has been expanding its product offerings in anticipation of the new standards.

“Prior to the finalization of the new requirements, Chartwells School Dining Services had already begun to offer products such as whole grain cereals, breads, rolls, pizza dough, and pasta,” Ms. Chung said. “In recent years, we have seen an increase in the variety of whole grain products available to schools, which is encouraging, but it’s still a work in progress. Distributing a consistent product, in large quantities, and making sure these products are acceptable to our young customers, is always a challenge.

“The price of whole grain options is still typically higher than the non-whole grain alternative, but we expect that by 2014 the prices of these products will become more competitive as efficiencies in production are realized.”

Minneapolis-based Cargill has been at the forefront of working with schools and manufacturers to provide whole grain ingredient solutions, and the new standards, while not unexpected, do up the ante for the company.

“We knew whole grains would make it through the (Institute of Medicine) recommendations, and have been working with schools in advance of that,” said Jessica Wellnitz, bakery applications product development lead at Cargill. She said Cargill is a member of a task force that has been discussing how to actively get more whole grains into schools. Topics of discussion have included the various ways to use whole grains, blending options, how to cost optimize and new ingredient technology.

Ms. Wellnitz said Cargill’s WheatSelect white spring whole wheat flour has been a popular ingredient in many formulations, as its lighter color, softer texture and milder taste have appealed to students. The company’s MaizeWise whole grain corn also works well for many applications.

Specifically, whole grain-rich pizza crust and bread are now widely accepted by children, but more work still remains in developing whole grain pasta that resonates with children, she said.

Ms. Wellnitz said Cargill recognizes demand for whole grain products is set to increase over the next several years as more schools incorporate whole grain-rich products into their lunch and breakfast programs. With that in mind, the company is considering increasing capacity for certain wheat products as well as examining the possibility of blending various whole grains. Cost optimization also will be a big issue.

“I think we recognize that supply is something that we’ll need to address, but we’re already looking at ways to address that,” she said.

Archer Daniels Midland Co., Decatur, Ill., also supplies a wide range of flour choices, and demand for whole wheat flour continues to pick up, said Brook Carson, technical product manager at ADM.

“By introducing whole grain at gradually increasing levels, students’ taste buds will be more accustomed to the taste when the whole grain mandate is in full implementation,” Ms. Carson said. “Food product developers continue to work with different grain choices, varieties and granulations to optimize new whole grain products for both taste and texture.”

As demand for whole grain increases, ADM has the ability to increase whole grain milling capacity to meet those needs, Ms. Carson said.

“The market continues to reflect an increase in both acceptance and interest in whole grain foods,” she said. “We will continue to look at the needs of the whole grain market and shift production to meet market needs.”

Groups mostly in favor of standards
Several associations weighed in on the new standards as well, mostly with positive feedback.
“We fully support increasing consumption of whole grains among school children,” said Robb MacKie, president and chief executive officer of the American Bakers Association. “However, we feel it is im-portant to remember that en-riched grains have important health benefits as well.”

Lee Sanders, senior vice-president of the A.B.A., said those benefits include serving as an important source of antioxidants, fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium and iron.

“In both their whole and enriched forms, they provide fuel the body needs to meet its energetic and cognitive needs,” Ms. Sanders said. “This obviously makes them extremely critical for school-aged children.”

Mr. MacKie also expressed concern with the lack of a universal definition of what constitutes a “whole grain.” In the final standards the U.S.D.A. defines “whole grain-rich” as those foods containing at least 51% whole grains, but Mr. MacKie said school administrators and manufacturers are likely to struggle with knowing what products comply and how they should be labeled.

“While the new standards do provide some additional guidance in this area, we continue to urge U.S.D.A. and F.D.A. to work together to set policy establishing a consistent definition of the term ‘whole grain’ as soon as possible,” he said.

Like the A.B.A., the Wheat Foods Council said it was pleased with the treatment of grains in the new school meal nutrition standards but continues to be concerned that the guidance offered in the final standards is complex and may pose difficulties for school food service personnel to implement.
“However, we do support the overall intent of increasing consumption of whole grains,” the W.F.C. said. “Since school may be the only opportunity for many children to consume whole grains, this makes it more probable they will reach the goal of having half their daily grain servings whole grains.”

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