BOSTON — Whole grains for the first time this year will have their own official month — September — and the Whole Grains Council here is hoping that retailers and food service operators, as well as suppliers, will tie promotions into the month.
The Whole Grains Council's director of food and nutrition strategies, Cynthia Harriman, urges retailers to contact the council to see how they can make the most of Whole Grains Month.
“We chose September because it's associated with harvest time and back to school,” Harriman told SN. “We're encouraging retailers to do promotions of any product that has at least 8 grams in one serving.”
It has been a busy year for the council, and there's reason to celebrate, Harriman said.
The council has nearly doubled its membership in the last year, bringing the membership roster to 150 companies, ranging from small, regional producers like a Vermont granola maker to big companies like General Mills.
Retailers, too, are signing up as members. Among them are Martins Supermarkets, South Bend, Ind., and, most recently, Whole Foods Markets, Austin, Texas.
Not only that, but a total of 1,553 whole grain products were launched last year, compared to just 704 in 2005.
“Recent statistics, too, show that 71% of consumers say they're looking to eat more whole grains,” Harriman said.
In partnership with Oldways Preservation Trust, Boston, this year the council launched two programs to raise awareness of whole grains. One is the Whole Grain Challenge, which targets chefs and food-service operations, from military commissaries to fine restaurants. The challenge to operators is to have at least one whole-grain item on their menu every day. The program is run as a competition, and winners will be announced in September.
“Some have already qualified, and others have asked a lot of questions,” Harriman said.
A companion program called “Just Ask” challenges consumers to ask for whole-grain products at restaurants and retail stores.
To qualify for prize drawings, consumers need only document what they have asked for and where.
“It's working,” Harriman said. “We're getting 400 to 500 entries a month.”
Buttons bearing the Whole Grains stamp and the words “Just Ask” are available from the council.
“It's interesting to hear what people are doing,” Harriman said. “It can be as simple as asking for brown rice instead of white. And some consumers have expressed surprise that when they ask, food-service operations, even some fast food operations, do have a whole-grain alternative available. “
The idea, she explained, is to raise awareness of whole grains and to make sure consumers have the option to choose them if they want them.
“Retailers and food-service operators are happy to offer healthy items, but in the past they've thought the demand was not there. In fact, we asked chefs what the barriers were to offering whole-grain products, and they just said they didn't think people wanted them.”
At the same time, consumers told the council that they got tired of asking for whole-grain alternatives because it didn't seem that anybody ever had them.
Thus the launch of the companion programs — one addressing food service and the other addressing consumers.
“We want to close that gap, and we think we can,” Harriman said.
There has always been a trickle-down effect from food service to retail when it comes to trends and products. In the case of whole grains, the trickle has been from retail to food service, but the council's new programs aim to bolster the trend and get it going back to retail, too.