encouraging whole grains
Photo: Michael Richard

Encouraging Whole Grain Consumption

Consumer Attitudes
Whole grains are gaining popularity as bakers and chefs market products made from spelt and other heritage wheat varieties, and magazines such as Bon Appetit celebrate the flavors and nutrients of non-commodity wheats and other grains. But despite this trend, the majority of consumers remain hesitant about adding whole grains and whole-grain flours to their diets. As a result, in the United States and globally, people consume far fewer whole grains than the recommended 3-5 servings per day. What barriers keep people from choosing and enjoying whole-grain foods, and what approaches do bakers and chefs use to introduce more whole-grain foods successfully?

A 2020 review showed that the top barriers to whole grain consumption among young adults are the taste, the cost, the difficulty in identifying whole grain products, and the poor availability of whole-grain products in grocery stores.

“It’s not nutritious if people don’t eat it!”
– Adriene Worthington, RD and Director of Nutrition Programs at the Greater Boston Food Bank

Sensory Experience
Breads and baked goods made with whole-grain flours tend toward a darker crust color, a denser texture, and a more complex flavor than refined flour foods. Because whole-grain flour includes the fat-containing germ, the flour, once milled, begins to oxidize, resulting in rancidity and a bitter aftertaste. This bitterness masks the fresh grassy taste notes that people enjoy in products made from fresh-milled whole-grain flour. As Jonathan Stevens of Hungry Ghost Bread comments, “flour that has become rancid doesn’t perform right, and it doesn’t quite taste right.” Studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that the lack of available fresh-milled flour and the off-taste of oxidized whole-grain flour deter people from choosing whole-grain foods.

“A lot of times people are hesitant to try things they don’t know about or they’ve never seen before. But if we can coach them through it and say: “this is a side dish, a grain; it’s like white rice or potatoes but it’s much better for you, please give it a try.” Often if they try it, they do like it, and now we have people who like to prepare whole grains for themselves. They like the texture, they like the flavor, and they like knowing it’s healthy for them.” 

Valerie Machinist, Manager of Nutrition Services at Community Servings

I really think the challenge from our end is making the whole grains taste and look good, because, let’s be honest, that’s important.
– Valerie Machinist, Manager of Nutrition Services, Community Servings

Highlight Flavor

The way we talk about healthy food matters. Emphasizing the tasty and enjoyable attributes of food, rather than their healthiness, increased the number of people choosing to eat them, as research published by the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC) documented.

Encouraging Whole-Grain Pasta Consumption
Like other whole-grain products, barriers to consumption exist. Two studies attempt to understand what motivates the consumption of whole-grain pasta on a university campus. In one study, the dining hall pasta selection offered one whole grain option and three refined options. Researchers tested different health messaging claims near the pasta station and found that the psychological message (whole grains will help “reduce fatigue”) was the most effective nudge, increasing whole grain pasta selection by 7.4%4. This suggests that nutritional messaging that informs the eater has an impact. In this study, the most popular pasta remained tortellini (refined), and its numbers did not suffer due to the whole grain promotion, suggesting that taste and familiarity were more important determinants of pasta selection than nutritional messaging.5  In a separate study, even among health-conscious students who chose whole-grain pasta, there was uncertainty that including whole grains in the diet was essential for health.6 Both of these studies suggest that at least among this university student population, displaying information on the nutritional benefits of whole grains, adding whole grain pasta to menu choices, and improving taste perception contribute to increased consumption.

In a separate study led by Ghislaine Challamel, researchers were interested in determining which among three descriptions of carrots would most increase consumption among Stanford University students. She writes: “The way we talk about healthy food matters and emphasizing the tasty and enjoyable attributes of food, rather than their healthiness, increased the number of people choosing to eat them, as shown by recent research published by the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC).

“Increasing Vegetable Intake by Emphasizing Tasty and Enjoyable Attributes: A Randomized Controlled Multisite Intervention for Taste-Focused Labeling” was published in the journal Psychological Science and compared labels using either healthy, neutral, or tasty messages to describe vegetarian dishes – for example: “Vitamin packed carrots,” “Carrots,” and “Citrus glazed carrots.”

The results of this groundbreaking research revealed that:

  1. Using taste-focused labels rather than health-focused labels increases the selection of vegetables by 29 percent;
  2. Compared to health-focused labels, taste-focused labels increase consumption by 39 percent;

  3. If all 57 member institutions of the MCURC implemented taste-focused labeling across the 750,000 meals they serve daily, this would translate to 38,000 more vegetable servings per day.

  4. You can access the manuscript here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797619872191

Consumers may be unfamiliar with whole-grain foods, which may deter them from eating something new, so consider introducing them gradually and with repeated opportunities for exposure.2 When Valerie Machinist, registered dietician and manager of nutrition services at Community Servings, introduced whole grains to her menus for the first time, she offered them as side dishes so people could sample something unfamiliar. Valerie also points out that people are more likely to eat whole grains if they are not an either/or choice but a default item added to the plate. For example, if the default grain for stir fry is brown rice, people will be more likely to eat brown rice.

Another way to increase familiarity is to substitute whole-grain flour for refined flour. In recipes already familiar to people, for instance, pizza dough and cookies, the flavor of tomatoes and cheese or chocolate might overpower the taste of the whole-grain flour. Maintaining the original texture and flavor of the product while replacing some refined flour with whole-grain flour will often depend on the type and variety of the wheat. Finding varieties that produce a texture and flavor similar to refined flour can be a stealthy way to introduce whole grains into consumers’ diets. The drawback with this approach is that education and consumer choice are absent.

Finally, offer culturally appropriate foods to draw on the target community’s demonstrated likes and dislikes. Traditional foods in many cultures already include whole grains. Listening to what people like and are familiar with is crucial to gaining acceptance!

Nutrition Messaging
Consumers are often unable to identify whole grain foods and may be unclear on the benefits of eating them.3 Share the nutritional and flavor benefits of whole grains or particular features, like local sourcing, to attract positive attention to whole grain dishes. An identifying icon might be one way to highlight whole-grain foods across the menu. See the Whole Grain Labels section to learn about industry labels on packaged foods. Institutions and restaurants can take the lead by including whole grains as a regular part of sweet and savory dishes, setting an example for individuals and other food service organizations. Communication is key to ensuring customers are along for the ride!

Affordability & Accessibility
Whole-grain foods are not always accessible or affordable. Consider how your institution can make whole grain options readily available, visible, and at a similar price point to refined grain options.

[1] Jia En Neo and Iain A. Brownlee, “Wholegrain Food Acceptance in Young Singaporean Adults,” Nutrients 9, no. 4 (April 8, 2017): 371, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9040371.
[2] Victoria Aldridge, Terence Dovey, and Jason Halford, “The Role of Familiarity in Dietary Development,” Developmental Review 29 (March 1, 2009): 32–44, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2008.11.001.
[3] Julie Miller Jones and Jodi Engleson, “Whole Grains: Benefits and Challenges,” Annual Review of Food Science and Technology 1, no. 1 (2010): 19–40, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.food.112408.132746.
[4] Giovanni Sogari et al., “The Influence of Health Messages in Nudging Consumption of Whole Grain Pasta,” Nutrients 11, no. 12 (December 6, 2019): 2993, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11122993.
[5] Sogari et al.
[6] Wongprawmas et al., “Determinants of US University Students’ Willingness to Include Whole Grain Pasta in Their Diet.”