It took scientists eight long years and millions of dollars to sneak whole grains into that spongy, yeasty icon of U.S. health-unconscious consumerism. Now that they've done it, food manufacturers have begun releasing a bevy of products they hope will get people to eat whole grains.
The thinking was to get more health into the bread and other products people like. But in the process, they've created some confusion, even as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is still trying to define whole grain products.
ConAgra Foods Inc., one of the nation's largest food makers, spent at least eight years and several million dollars developing Ultragrain White Whole Wheat. The grain was bred for its properties and is not considered genetically modified, said Garth Neuffer, a spokesman for the Omaha, Neb.-based company. The company won't disclose its sales expectations for Ultragrain products.
One year since its unveiling, Ultragrain is turning up in cookies, pasta, crackers and other products.
Sara Lee Corp., one of ConAgra's larger customers, last month launched its Soft & Smooth bread, a loaf with Ultragrain that appears white, but is 30 percent whole grain. Meanwhile, Interstate Bakeries Corp.'s Wonder Bread — a name synonymous with fluffy white bread — is test-marketing its own white bread with 100 percent whole grain, and plans a wide release next year.
It's the business of balancing kids' finicky tastes with the government's nutritional guidelines that's attracting people like Tammy Yarmon, director of nutrition services for Omaha Public Schools. Products that pack extra fiber or other nutrients make the balancing act easier as she tries to average out nutritional requirements — guidelines recommend at least three daily servings of whole grain — over a week.
"The hardest thing is to get a kid to eat something that's brown or anything that looks like it has seeds in it," Yarmon said.
About 2,600 school districts have signed up to carry at least one of ConAgra's Ultragrain items — which include burritos, chimichangas and Max pizza, a pie made with a crust that's half whole grain — Neuffer said.
"One of our main goals is the education of our students for better nutrition. So we will use some education with this pizza to let them know it does have more fiber than regular pizza crust," said Yarmon, whose charges gobble up pizza at the rate of 28,000 slices a month.
But not everyone likes the new products. With fat kids in the headlines and obesity now called an epidemic, experts are divided on Ultragrain's merits.
Touting these products as whole grain is a marketing gimmick that could confuse well-meaning parents, said Dr. Fred Pescatore, a Manhattan internist who specializes in nutrition.
"What they're doing is playing to the marketplace perception that whole grain is good for us — which it certainly is — but they're putting a little bit in there so they can say that it's there," Pescatore said. "They're not really doing a great service."
General Mills Inc., which now offers whole-grain cereals, has petitioned the government to define whole grains, said Kim Rawlings, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. According to FDA guidelines, products must have only whole-wheat flour to be labeled as "whole wheat."
Consumers know they want whole grains in their diets, said Larry Shiman, vice president of Opinion Dynamics Corp., a market research firm. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said eating whole grains is a high priority, he said.
And consumers are more likely to embrace a whole-grain trend more than they did the meat-based Atkins Diet, Shiman said. He noted the company behind the diet, Atkins Nutritionals, recently filed for bankruptcy.
Manufacturers recognize this, and as the low-carb craze slowed down, bakers and millers stayed alive by creating more whole grain products, said Judi Adams, president of the Grain Foods Foundation, a group representing those industries.
Adams, a registered dietitian, said the white whole wheat products will help consumers gradually shift toward all whole grain, the same shift that moved people from drinking whole milk to skim.
But Shiman said manufacturers shouldn't jump to change standard products. When people think wheat, they think brown, he said.
"I think there's a general tendency to want to eat things that are intuitive. And whole grain bread that's white? I don't know how people will respond to that," Shiman said.
It's always a good thing when children eat something with whole grains in it, said Dr. Rebecca Unger, a pediatrician in the Nutrition Evaluation Clinic at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Although these new breads have less fiber than whole wheat bread — between 3 and 4 grams for two slices compared with upward of 5 or 6 grams — she said they do have more than white bread, which sometimes doesn't have any fiber.
But parents should still be cautious about other ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup — a sweetener — and should read labels to make sure whole grains are listed as the first ingredient, she said.
"By educating families to read food labels, we can help them to make healthier food choices," Unger said.
Pescatore argues that parents should just take the leap and change to whole grain.
"If we don't make really significant inroads in this, where will we be in 10 to 15 years?" Pescatore said. "We can't afford to have people continue to be sick and eating themselves to death."
By Emily Fredrix