Stoufer: Relationships, innovation vital to whole grain acceptance

by Editorial Staff
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MINNEAPOLIS — Traditional flour will remain a valuable ingredient, but whole grains consumption will continue to grow as millers and food companies forge deeper relationships that provide solutions to complex issues, said Bill Stoufer, president of Omaha-based ConAgra Mills, Inc. Mr. Stoufer delivered a keynote speech on May 21 as part of the 2012 Whole Grains Summit at the Hilton hotel in Minneapolis.
Mr. Stoufer described a number of trends permeating the marketplace, from cleaner labels to less processed foods to good-for-you products. He also noted two trends that really never change — demand for taste and texture.

“The really good news is that whole grains meets all those demands that consumers are asking for today,” he said. “But there is plenty of work to do going forward. Over the last three years whole grain product introductions have really flattened out. Sales in dollars have flattened, units as well. Units, actual number of products being sold, actually declined. The product scope is narrowed to seven categories that command about 97% of all the sales dollars in whole grains today.”

Mr. Stoufer commended industry for doing a good job getting to this point, but offered some perspective on renewing the growth in the top seven categories and getting more categories to include whole grains. While whole grains occasionally battle consumer resistance on taste and texture, Mr. Stoufer offered the example of whole milk versus skim milk as an example of making the transition work.

“If we do the same with whole grains, what we’re really saying is ‘while it would be great to get everything to 100% whole grain it’s okay that some products are 50%, some products may be 30%,’” he explained. “Let’s give the consumer more choice. Let’s incorporate more whole grains into more food products. We’re all going to be better off if we eat products that contain more than 0% whole grain. So it’s about choice, and giving the consumer permission.”

Mr. Stoufer also stressed the importance of building a base of core whole grain consumers for the
future. The natural base is children, who increasingly are being exposed to whole grains in school breakfast and lunch programs.

“What the government is doing today is giving us permission to win with children,” Mr. Stoufer said. “What we also understand, as we age people generally don’t change their eating habits. What we are eating today is what we like to eat. So if it doesn’t include whole grains it probably won’t include whole grains going forward. But what we’ve done with the changes in the school diet is that we’re building the base of whole grain consumers. We are delivering on our promise to feed our children better. And that’s a great thing. As we go forward, it’s building this market as these children age that will continue to eat whole grains. Again, if we don’t change what we eat growing up and as we age, if they grow up with whole grain they are going to continue whole grain consumption. That is a great thing for the milling business and food business. Really, we might be able to influence the obesity problem. We also might be able to influence the diabetes problem that we have in the U.S. today, too.”

Mr. Stoufer also drew a link to traditional flour, which he said has “taken a bloody nose,” but remains “a good product.”

“If we believe that all products may or may not have 100% whole grain, there is going to be a link back to traditional flour,” he said. “It’s important to leverage these benefits of traditional flour. It contains
essential vitamins and minerals when it’s enriched. It’s a great source of energy. It’s cost effective. And it has unmatched functionality to create the nutritious products we all love. Wheat flour is the building block of many of these great products. People today still like to indulge.”

Another aspect key to growing whole grains consumption will be the buyer/seller relationship, Mr. Stoufer said.
“Consumer demands are changing and are very dynamic,” he said. “You add in social media and social communication and the pace has changed. The consumer and food companies are looking for solutions. To find solutions, the buyer/seller relationship cannot be built solely on a transaction. That’s not a sustainable model. There must be built a vision and trust leading to mutual success between parties.
“The miller is an essential link between grain and great food. We both must have a shared vision, alignment of key people, open dialogue, clear communications and a sense of urgency for innovation. Solutions can take many months to a few years to find.”

As an example, he mentioned that new milling technology may take 18 months to 2 years to develop, while new varieties of wheat may take 3 to 7 years to commercialize.

“So if it’s about a transaction and innovation, those two words don’t really go well together,” he said. “But mutual and shared vision and trust and innovation go well together.”

Lastly, Mr. Stoufer elaborated on the importance of innovation, pointing out the challenges that come in a world where consumers really don’t know what they want and don’t buy like they think.

“Everyone likes to think they’re eating healthier, but they don’t buy that way,” he said. “We have to be creative as we go forward. Just extending whole grains into existing product lines may be successful, but I think there is a better way forward. We need to incorporate multiple whole grains, different textures and different flavors into the products we all make. We have to be bold with innovation. It needs to be groundbreaking at times. We may need to create whole new product lines, whether it’s us as a miller or as a food company. We have to communicate the message clearly and decisively to the consumer."
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