Why whole grains are everywhere — except on the dinner table. Perhaps because you need a math degree to eat well.
Americans may be having a whole-grain moment.
A case can certainly be made: The first lady has become such a fan she is practically a nag; new federal guidelines urge us to consume half of all our grains as whole grains; Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, is working to lower prices on whole grains to encourage consumption. Once just for health fanatics, whole grains have gone so mainstream they are now in Duncan Hines chocolate chip muffins and Lucky Charms.
Among attributes played up on food packaging, whole grains rank 19th, behind kosher and gluten-free, but ahead of vegetarian and vegan, according to Mintel International, a research company. The marketing surge has led to consumers expressing refined-grains shame. “I do feel guilty,’’ said Tess Wagner, an unemployed administrative assistant from Cambridge, after she was caught tossing a package of Thomas’s white English muffins into her cart at Target in Watertown. “You keep hearing about how healthy whole grains are.’’
But despite the buzz, whole grains have not quite arrived. As Harry Balzer, a vice president with the NPD Group, a market research company, put it: “We have aspirations. Getting there is a whole different story.’’ Part of the challenge, apparently, is getting past our self-delusion. While only 5 percent of Americans eat the recommended 48 grams of whole grains per day, according to Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, recently released by the US Department of Agriculture and the US Department of Health and Human Services, more than 60 percent of Americans believe they are eating enough, according to a survey by
Tina Kurkjian, a Weston mother, is one of the confused. “I try to use flax,’’ she said as she grocery shopped recently, “but I don’t know why.’’ Surrounded by a number of products that play up their whole grains — and, look, there they are in Wonder bread and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish — Kurkjian pronounced herself baffled. “I don’t know where I would start.’’
A recent study by the NPD Group found that 68 percent of Americans are trying to get more whole grains in their diet today, compared with 63 percent in 2005. But the other third? They may be suffering from nutrition fatigue. With calories, carbs, and sodium to count, eating has become like math class. “It’s just one more thing to think about,’’ Christine Stacchi of Arlington said as she shopped at Target.
Considering their potential advantages, the federal government says there is some evidence that whole grains can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, among health benefits. Why is eating a slice of whole-grain bread so difficult?
Start with the fear factor, as explained by Heather Forrest, a financial adviser from Newton. A recent weekend found her shopping for her 5-year-old daughter’s birthday party, and loading her cart with white pasta. “I don’t know what picky kids will eat,’’ she said. “I’m afraid.’’
Then, let’s be frank. Whole grains have a bit of a reputation to overcome. Even Cynthia Harriman, the director of food and nutrition strategies for the Whole Grains Council, part of the Boston-based nonprofit Oldways, acknowledges that they were often dense and daunting. “Some people say, ‘Back in the hippie days I was burned by whole grains.’ But you try them today, and they’re really good.’’
Harriman explained that manufacturers have started to see potential in whole grains and are now putting research and development money into reformulating recipes. “You can’t just take the white stuff out and put the whole grain in.’’
Since 2005, about 3,700 new whole-grain products have been introduced, according to Mintel. A number of those are General Mills products. In 2005, the company announced that its entire line of Big G cereals would contain 8 grams of whole grains in every serving. Having identified what it calls a “whole grain gap,’’ the company advertises the whole grain content of its Big G cereal lineup separately from its advertising for individual cereal varieties and will spend 20 percent more on whole grain advertising this year.
Some people, like Forrest, the Newton mother, see sugary cereals such as Count Chocula and Trix boasting whole grains and ask “why bother?’’
But Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, takes a slightly more nuanced view: “You could look at it either way,’’ she said. “If you were buying Lucky Charms anyway, you are slightly better off getting Lucky Charms with whole grains. The problem is when people think they are getting a truly healthy cereal, and any cereal that is [high sugar] is not particularly healthy. You’re better off with a whole-grain, low-sugar cereal like Wheaties or Cheerios in the yellow box.’’
Here is another factor making it harder for Americans to get enough whole grains: restaurants. While whole grains call out to consumers from the cereal and bread aisles, they’re hard to find in restaurants, Harriman said. “Restaurants have been a bit slow to realize that the whole-grain train was leaving the station without them. But that’s improving fast.’’
What might really boost consumption would be tweets. Jerry Burger, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University who was invited to speak at the Whole Grains Council’s recent conference, said that people often base their food choices on what they think others are eating. “It’s not the same thing as conformity or peer pressure . . . which is people changing their behavior because they are worried about what others will think of them,’’ he said. “Social norms can be a very effective tool for changing behavior.’’
But don’t underestimate peer pressure, either, whether from colleagues, roommates, or spouses. Harriman said she recently returned home to find her husband wearing a “bad boy’’ look. After a moment he confessed: “I had white rice.’’
Harriman said she should be happy he was not with another woman. But here’s what truly brought her joy: “He said it tasted kind of bland.’’
Beth Teitell can be reached at email@example.com.