The major barrier for food manufacturers looking to produce commercially viable wholegrain products is that they do not follow a clear enough formulation and marketing concept, according to a contract R&D firm, which has identified three main strategies for commercial success.
"You have to give consumers what they want - not what you want them to have," said Leslie Skarra, president of Merlin Development.
Speaking at the recent World Grains Summit in California, Skarra said that the first strategy targets the mass population of normal consumers; the second strategy targets the same consumer group but will bring in business more slowly; and the third strategy targets a smaller niche market of health-conscious consumers.
The first approach, and the one that is most commonly adopted, is what she terms the "Stealth Approach" , and involves "sneaking" the beneficial ingredient into familiar food products without the consumer noticing.
This, said Skarra, is usually opted for because of the ready consumer base. And it can be extremely successful commercially as it promises consumers health benefits within products that they already like the taste of.
But the glitch here is that manufacturers have to be sure they can deliver what they claim.
"This promises to be the largest and easiest market to sell to, but it is technically the most difficult to deliver. Consumers have a very strong mental image of the taste attributes of a product. If you can't match those, you fail. It's a difficult standard," she said.
So the first issue that manufacturers need to consider in the use of this strategy is consumer expectation, according to Skarra, who has worked with a number of major food firms as well as ingredients firms such as Cargill.
The second major issue that needs to be addressed involves the company's internal expectations. The manufacture of the reformulated product will most likely cost more, whereas companies often expect to sell the product for the same price as the original item. Furthermore, plant managers may expect a plant to run at the same efficiency, and this will likely not always be the case.
"Companies typically don't acknowledge the difficulties of these very simple issues. They often underestimate the size of the task for the stealth approach," she told FoodNavigator-USA.com.
An example of a successful product marketed under this approach is Sara Lee's "Soft and Smooth" white wholegrain bread, she said.
The second strategy that Merlin Development has identified has been termed the "Seduction Approach" , and involves choosing to make a new product that does not claim to match something that already exists.
The success - and the key difficulty - of this type of marketing is to deliver on the taste claim. If the product is, in fact, "delicious" as it claims to be, then consumers will come back to it.
"I honestly believe that this is the approach that will drive behavioral change in the US. But it will take longer to succeed in the market place because the only people who will agree to try these products in the first instance are those consumers who are willing to try 'healthy wholegrains', which tends to turn some people away," said Skarra.
"But although the market for these will develop more slowly, I believe that this is the way consumers will turn whole."
An example of this type of product is Sara Lee's "Hearty and Delicious All-Natural 100 per cent Whole Grain Bread", which was launched in the US last month, and which contains 22g of whole grains per slice.
The third strategy is known at the "Direct Approach" , and involves directly marketing 'healthy' products.
This approach utilizes the desire for health of a niche group of consumers, but is no less challenging, according to Skarra. Indeed, manufacturers have often come to the market with health conscious products that fail because they underestimate the expectations of this consumer group, she said. These include stringent requirements on the ingredients they find acceptable, and they will often reject a product if it contains ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup.
Skarra again used Sara Lee original whole grain products as an example, demonstrating how the firm markets items that play in all three of the identified approaches to whole grain foods.
"It is crucial to keep sight of which of these three approaches you are going after, and to remain consistent in that approach," said Skarra.
However, one thing that needs to be kept in mind regardless of the chosen approach is the way in which products will be labeled and claims will be made. This often proves to be a barrier in that manufacturers often go for health claims, which require that a product contains 51 percent of wholegrains by weight.
But this is a technical challenge, said Skarra, and is often impossible for products that contain a significant amount of water. One solution is to consider making wholegrain serving claims, or to use an easily identifiable wholegrain stamp.