Going With the Grain: Consumers Responding to New Dietary Guidelines

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January, recommend that half of all daily grain servings come from whole-grain foods. These recommendations mark a significant departure from past recommendations, which made no distinction between whole and refined grains.

USDA has been providing dietary advice for over a century. Since 1980, however, recommendations on attaining adequate nutrition also included information about how and why to avoid overconsumption of nutrients like saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, linked to chronic diseases. Consumption patterns during this period suggest that consumers modify their food choices in response to a variety of factors, including increased information about the links between diet and health. According to ERS food availability data between 1980 and 2003, Americans reduced their consumption of red meats, such as beef, in favor of leaner meats, such as chicken and turkey. They also more than doubled their intake of skim milk, while drinking half as much whole milk.

Early indications suggest that Americans may likewise be eating more whole grains. To gauge shoppers’ initial response to the new Guidelines, ERS examined whole-grain purchases over an 8-week period immediately following the Guidelines’ January 12 release. ERS compared the purchases with those over the previous 8 weeks, as well as with those over the same 8-week period in 2004 to control for seasonal spikes.

Although low-carbohydrate dieters may still shy away from certain grain products, the popularity of whole-grain products appears to be rising. In the 8 weeks after the release of the Guidelines, the average shopper purchased about 13 percent more pounds of whole-grain products than during the same period in 2004. When we compared the 8 weeks before and after the release, we found that shoppers bought nearly 12 percent more whole-grain breads, 19 percent more whole-grain rice, and 16 percent more whole-grain ready-to-eat breakfast cereals. These increases may be a result of changes in dietary awareness. In addition, shoppers now have more whole-grain foods from which to choose; in 2004 alone, nearly 100 new products touted their whole-grain formulations. Shoppers can now find a variety of whole-grain pastas at mainstream grocery stores, white breads made from whole-grain flour, and reformulated, whole-grain breakfast cereals.