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UMNews: Going with the whole grain

School food-service directors from around Minnesota agree that they want to get more whole-grain food into their cafeterias. But the big question is how.


School food-service directors from around Minnesota agree that they want to get more whole-grain food into their cafeterias. But the big question is how.

A study led by University of Minnesota researcher Len Marquart points up the difficulties; among them are a variety of definitions for a “whole grain” product, packaging and distribution problems, and the dilemma of how to get kids to eat whole-grain bread.

The study stems from a 2007 meeting of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association, 36 food service directors and managers from urban, suburban, and rural school districts sounded off on the hurdles they face in trying to add whole grains to school lunches.

The obstacles could have an impact on student health. Whole grains have been linked to a smaller risk of heart disease, type II diabetes, and some types of cancer, plus better weight management. But on average, Americans only eat about one serving a day of whole grains instead of the three recommended servings, the researchers say.

To start with, the food service professionals wanted a standard measure for the amount of whole grain in food items.

The confusion lies not in defining whole grain flour — it is ground from unrefined kernels of wheat, oats, rye, etc. — but in defining a whole grain product. Whole grain products are made with whole grain flour, plus other ingredients, and sorting out the whole grain content of a food product is what’s hard.

The researchers write that one definition, from the Food and Drug Administration, is based on the amount of whole grain in the total weight of the product. Another, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, defines a whole grain product as one in which whole grains account for 51 percent of the total flour content.

“The major issue associated with this definition, as supported by our findings, is that most school food service people do not know whether the 51 percent represents the amount of whole grain flour by the total percent of flour in the product or by the amount of whole grain flour in the total weight of the product,” says Marquart, an associate professor of food science and nutrition.

This kind of confusion makes it hard to determine how many servings — another term with more than one definition — of whole grains a product supplies.

But the food service professionals had plenty of other gripes, too. Take buns, for example. An eight-pack may be fine for a family, but they make for a lot of extra labor in a school cafeteria.

“We use whole-grain hamburger buns and hot dog buns, but you’re right — they’re in the consumer-sized packages,” said one person in the study. “You know, we’re talking eight hot dog buns to a package. Well, when you’re doing 500 hot dogs, that’s a lot of bags you’re ripping up.”

The issues of availability and cost also came up at the discussion. Larger districts appeared to enjoy more options, higher product consistency, and, in general, superior service from distributors than did smaller districts. But representatives of smaller schools raised the possibility of forming bargaining or co-op groups to strengthen their position, decrease costs, and relieve vendors of the burden of dealing with many schools individually.

The researchers concluded that schools, vendors, manufacturers and governmental agencies need to communicate better in order to remove confusion about definitions and which standards to follow when ordering whole grain products. But they also saw a golden opportunity to educate students and staff about whole grains in the schools.

Which brings us to the issue of how to create consumer demand; in other words, how to get kids to eat food that’s good for them. Timing was one strategy.

“I think if you start early enough in elementary, just like anything else in the schools, if you present [whole grain] to them on a daily basis, they’re going to become accustomed to it,” said one discussant.

Blending, camouflage, multiple options, and no choice all popped up as ways to help youngsters adapt to whole grains. However it’s done, one food service person summed up the challenge perfectly: “Just the appearance alone is enough to scare kids away, but that’s what we’re here for is to teach them to learn to eat better.”