SAN ANTONIO — A challenging economy and rising retail prices have stalled U.S. sales of whole grain foods, but implementing a stronger commitment to converting white bread users and delivering a better weight management message may spur sales once again, said David Sheluga, Ph.D., director of consumer insights at ConAgra Mills, Inc., Omaha. Mr. Sheluga spoke Oct. 18 in San Antonio at the “Whole grains on every plate” conference sponsored by Oldways and the Whole Grains Council.

Referencing market data from research firm Nielsen, Mr. Sheluga said retail whole grain and multigrain sales have stalled during the period spanning 2008 to 2012.

“Despite the passion, commitment and the desire of everybody in this room, I think you have to face the sales reality that these sales are not growing,” Mr. Sheluga said. “We’ve been in this $12 billion range for whole grain products over the past five years.”

Mr. Sheluga identified several headwinds that whole grains will face over the next decade, including pressure in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to reduce grain consumption, pressures to reduce portion size, population shifts to favor colorful, lower starch foods, and a “50 shades of beige” idea, where beige foods in general are on the downslide, while more colorful, dual texture foods are on the uptick.

To combat the headwinds, Mr. Sheluga said the grain-based foods industry will need to form a strategy based on growing share of whole grains within declining categories.

“Can this be done? Yeah, it sure can be done,” Mr. Sheluga said. “Just look at bread.” While the entire bread category has struggled recently, whole wheat bread has been a “rock star,” he said.

“This shift in share within a declining category is possible and it is the key to success over the long run,” Mr. Sheluga said.

According to ConAgra’s research, about 52% of consumers are looking to get whole grains into their diet. But cracking the code for the other 48% is what is challenging, Mr. Sheluga said. A good start is reassuring consumers that whole grain products are similar to refined products they already are eating, he said.

Even white bread consumers not seeking to buy whole grain bread “totally get it” when it comes to associating whole grains with adding fiber, filling you up and aiding in digestion, but they also want to hear a product helps with weight management or helps boost energy, Mr. Sheluga said. They do not want to hear about all the other disease control aspects of a product, he added.

“Let’s design products to be mild, non-grainy for those white bread consumers,” he said. “Affordability is a big, big thing for this group, so let’s find ways to deliver whole grains at a parity price. Let’s not upcharge, and there are ways to do that. Message to weight management, don’t message to disease control. And you might have to, for the white bread user, figure out ways to introduce very low levels of whole grains, maybe gradually increasing those over time.”

Mr. Sheluga said the Nutrition Facts Panel provides a huge bump in terms of messaging that consumers trust, and getting the Whole Grain Stamp next to the panel should be a priority.

“My recommendation is that if people trust the Nutrition Facts Panel and they trust the Whole Grain Stamp, and we can’t get the whole grains information into the Nutrition Facts Panel let’s do the next best thing — let’s get that stamp consistently on all packages right next to the Nutrition Facts Panel, above it or beside it,” he said. “But not where it’s at now, which is random.”