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 or hybrid flours, and magazines such as Bon Appetit [https://www.bonappetit.com/story/where-to-buy-ancient-grains-online] celebrate the flavors and nutrients of non-commodity wheats and other grains. But despite the 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 successfully introduce more whole-grain foods?

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, develop a denser texture, and offer 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 Bakery [should be “Bread”] comments, “flour that has become rancid just 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 all whole-grain foods.

“A lot of times people are hesitant to try things. To just try things they don’t know about or that they’ve never seen before, but if we can coach them through it and say: “listen, this is just a side dish, it’s a grain, it’s like the white rice or potatoes you’ve been eaeting but it’s much better for you, please give it a try.”

Often if people are willing to try it, they do like it, and now we have people who like to prepare it for themselves. It’s not always the case, but if we can get someone to try it and stick with it… they do grow to like the whole grains. 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

You know 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

Consumers may be unfamiliar with whole grain foods, and this may deter them from eating something new, so consider introducing whole grain foods gradually and with repeated opportunities for exposure.2 For example, when Valerie Machinist, registered dietician and manager of nutrition services at Community Servings, introduced whole grains in her menu for the first time, she offered them in side-dishes so people could sample the whole grains. Valerie also points out that people are more likely to eat whole grains if they are the default of the meal rather than an explicit choice. 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 for refined grain in recipes that people are already familiar with: pizza dough made with some whole wheat flour will likely not taste very different from dough made from refined grains. Replacing some or all refined flour in a product with whole grain flour while maintaining as close to the original texture and flavor as possible can be a stealthy way to introduce whole grains into consumers’ diets without offering an explicit choice. The drawback with this approach is that education and 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 in order 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 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 that already exist on packaged foods. Institutions and restaurants can take the lead in including whole grains as a regular part of sweet and savory dishes, setting an example for individuals and other food service organizations, but communication is key to ensuring customers are along for the ride!

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, recent research published by the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative shows (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, and tasty messages to describe vegetarian dishes – for example: “Vitamin packed carrots”, “Carrots”, and “Citrus glazed carrots”.

This groundbreaking research shows that using taste-focused labels rather than health focused labels increases the selection of vegetables by 29 percent.

Ghislaine Challamel, MS.
Ghislaine has been the Research Program Manager for the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative for four years.

Affordability & Accessibility
Whole grain foods are not always accessible nor affordable. . Consider how your institution can make whole grain options readily available, visible, and at a similar price point to refined grain options.

Looking for a handout for consumers? See our Resources section

[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.