Grainy Picture


Whole grain products have moved into the mainstream with greater consumer acceptance in the cookie and cracker aisles.

Chances are, when consumers reach for a cookie or cracker, that item will contain whole grains. These days, the healthfulness of such products is touted in health studies and the media, as well as on items’ nutritional panels and even store signage — and shoppers are at last beginning to take note.

Whole grain gains racked up thus far may look modest, but they’re still indicative of steady growth as more people begin incorporating whole grains into their diets. The Nielsen Company found that for the 52 weeks ending July 10, 2010, sales of whole grain crackers rose 3.3 percent, following previous years’ growth of 9.6 percent, 7.6 percent and 8.1 percent, although whole grain cookies plunged 25 percent for the most recent 52-week period, most likely due to fewer product introductions in the segment vs. whole grain crackers.

“In our markets, shoppers are responding to these products, and the category is doing well; however, it has by no means taken over our basic line of products,” says Dave Bordonaro, nonperishables director at Williamsville, N.Y.-based Tops Markets LLC, which highlights whole grains in ads when promoting products and uses vendor signage “when appropriate.” The grocer operates 131 full-service supermarkets — 126 company-owned and five franchise locations.

Musing on the factors keeping whole grain cookies and crackers from being even more popular, Bordonaro adds: “Items in this category are sometimes considered an indulgence, and when customers indulge, they might not be thinking of whole grain, or healthier benefits, but the concept is definitely catching on.” A further wrinkle is that shoppers unfamiliar to whole grain products “may suspect [its] taste or texture,” he notes.

Meanwhile, over at Mauldin, S.C.-based Bi-Lo LLC, which operates over 207 stores in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, “whole grains are becoming the new mainstream product,” declares Monica Amburn, the grocer’s corporate dietitian, who notes that consumers are increasingly checking out the ingredients listed on product packaging and expressing interest in three main attributes: variety of options, great taste and affordable options.

“Whole grains are becoming the new mainstream product.”

—Monica Amburn, Bi-Lo LLC

As the overseer of the Southeastern grocer’s recently rolled out “Thrive!” program, Amburn makes sure whole grains are among the nutritious items spotlighted in the multimedia initiative’s storewide displays, shelf signage and free magazine, as well as in store circulars.

Bi-Lo category manager Mike McShane says that sales of whole grain cookies and crackers, which include Kashi SKUs and private label wheat crackers promoted as “family groups,” with whole grain, multigrain and whole wheat extensions merchandised alongside their refined-grain brand mates, have experienced double-digit sales growth of late. This level of consumer interest stems the fact that “at Bi-Lo, we’re making these options available,” as Amburn points out.

Of course, it helps that ubiquitous consumer packaged goods companies like Kraft Foods are doing their bit to provide options: the iconic Minneapolis-based manufacturer said in July that it would boost the whole grain content in its Nabisco cracker brands, more than doubling the amount of whole grain currently used across the brand portfolio. Over the next three years, this reformulation will encompass more than 100 products, including the Wheat Thins, Honey Maid, Premium and Ritz lines.

“Nine out of 10 Americans eat less than the recommended daily amount of whole grains,” notes Rhonda Jordan, president, global health & wellness at Kraft. “And a growing number of consumers are trying to increase their consumption of whole grains. By significantly increasing the amount of whole grain in our crackers, we’re giving them an easy, delicious way to get the whole grain they need in the foods they already enjoy.”

Other familiar brand names have seen success by rolling out whole grain versions of their tried-and-true products. “Old London Foods sales are up in 2010,” notes Chris Gunsch, director of marketing at Old London’s parent company, Westchester, Ill.-based Nonni’s Food Co. “We have been very successful by adding whole grains to our products with the capability to mesh new bold flavors into our original line. The key is a great-tasting snack with whole grain; those two key elements blended together keep the consumers coming back.” As well as incorporating whole grains across its product lines — Melba Toasts, Melba Snacks, Bagel Chips, Flatbreads and Croutons, all of which now have a minimum of 5 grams of whole grains per serving — Old London continued to leverage its “A Toast for Everyday Health” campaign introduced last year to encourage consumers to make positive changes in their health habits.

Such an approach makes sense to advocates of better nutrition and retailers alike. As Dr. Len Marquart, president of Grains for Health Foundation, a St. Paul, Minn.-based nonprofit organization consisting of scientific and health professionals that seeks to unite the grain supply chain with government agencies and academia to address important grain-based research issues, observes: “Consumers appear to be adapting to higher levels of whole grain content in cookies and crackers. A gradual introduction of a wide variety of whole grain cookies and crackers into the marketplace may continue to support this trend (if the higher-whole grain products continue to meet consumer acceptance).” He warns that “[t]he taste profile must fall within the consumers’ acceptable limits for sensory characteristics (taste, texture, flavor, aroma) and quality.”

“Most consumers know that they should include more whole grain in their diets, but many don’t, either because these products cost more or the taste is different from other, more indulgent varieties,” says Tops VP of center store sales and marketing Cathy Whiffletree. “Manufacturers are aware of this, and they are spending time and dollars researching and creating better, healthier varieties that taste as close as possible to the original. As a result, in many cases, they’ve been able to create whole grain versions that cost the same and taste just as good as the original variety. I definitely see this trend continuing to grow in the next few years.”

“By significantly increasing the amount of whole grain in our crackers, we’re giving [consumers] an easy, delicious way to get the whole grain they need in the foods they already enjoy.”

—Rhonda Jordan, Kraft Foods

Other brands are entering the category as a way to extend their product lines. La Jolla, Calif.-based Bear Naked, for example, last month augmented its lineup of natural granolas, cereals, trail mix and Grain-ola bars with the addition 100% Pure & Natural Soft-Baked Granola Cookies. “Baked with whole grains and simple ingredients, each cookie supplies natural energy to fuel the everyday lives of active people,” the division of Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg observes.

As well as major players in the cookie and cracker arena, the growing consumer willingness to try whole grain snacks is creating opportunities for newer and less well-known companies as well.

“In all my demos of [our] products in supermarkets and at consumer events, I would say the first thing customers are looking for is that the product is truly whole grain,” notes George Eckrich, partner, and director of sales and marketing at Plano, Texas-based Doctor Kracker, which Eckrich says only bakes crackers containing at least 51 percent whole grain. One way shoppers can be assured that a product contains the whole grains they’re looking for is through the Whole Grains Stamp introduced in 2005 by the Whole Grains Council, he says, adding, “This stamp verifies that at least one-half of the grains are whole grains.”

Eckrich continues that “consumers are responding well to Dr. Kracker. They like our high fiber and high protein levels, as well as the lack of sweetener in most flavors.”

“We are still a startup company, so we’re continuing to grow in terms of sales and number of stores,” explains Irene Costello, co-founder of Hyde Park, Mass.-based Effie’s Homemade, which offers such whole grain products as oatcakes and the newly introduced Pecan Nutcakes, both of which straddle the line between cookies and crackers, making them an exciting addition to the U.S. market. “However, our first product, Effie’s Oatcakes, has been a runaway hit from the start .… The product’s versatility makes it easy to enjoy as a tea biscuit, a cookie, or a cracker with cheese.” The company is currently testing a new line of whole grain crackers, according to Costello, who declines to give more details, except that the product is “phenomenal!”

The inclusion of whole grain cookies and crackers is set to keep expanding along with consumers’ demand for such products. “I see continued growth in this area, as customers become more and more health-conscious, and as these alternatives become more mainstream,” says Tops’ Bordonaro. “I see continued migration to known brands offering whole grain alternatives, and customers reacting to the marketing plans of these companies.”

McShane at Bi-Lo perhaps sums it up best: “At the end of the day, the customer wants choices.” And that’s precisely what whole grain cookies and crackers offer.

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