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No More Paying Extra for Whole Grains?

January 27, 2011

Does it bug you when you go to the supermarket and notice that your favorite brand of whole grain pasta costs more than the same brand of refined/enriched pasta? Or when the loaf of white bread costs $1.79, while the whole wheat bread costs $2.29 or even $2.59?

On the most basic level, the difference should be the other way. According to the Kansas Wheat Commission, a bushel of wheat yields about 42 pounds of refined flour – but the same bushel yields 60 pounds of whole wheat flour. So the main ingredient for the bread should logically be cheaper.

But it’s not so simple. There are several reasons why making whole grain bread can cost the bakery more.  Whole grain bread may rise more slowly, for instance, meaning lower throughput on the production ine, and it may not have as long a shelf life, leading to a higher percentage of waste when bread goes stale before it’s sold.

And then there’s that old devil, economy of scale. The factory may be able to operate more economically when it makes a big batch of white bread or pasta, while the same change-over expenses drive up costs when a small batch of whole grain food is produced. Ditto for marketing expenses, and other fixed costs, when they’re spread over a smaller number of units.

So today, most whole grains cost more. If you hold a good job, you may not mind, because after all, they’re worth more. We’re used to paying a premium price for a premium product. Is it really so bad to pay 25% more for bread or pasta that may have two or three times the level of many nutrients?

It’s bad if you’re unemployed, or a single parent just making ends meet. Our bodies all need the best food we can provide them, and it would be great if that price premium for whole grains were to go away, especially now that volume for whole grain products is rising and economies of scale are kicking in.

America’s largest grocer, Walmart, pledged last week to end the price premium on whole grains.  In a major announcement with First Lady Michelle Obama, Walmart executives stated that they would work to make healthy food more affordable.

“Our customers often ask us why whole wheat pasta sometimes costs more than regular pasta made by the same manufacturer,” said Andrea Thomas, senior vice president of sustainability at Walmart. “We will use our size and scale to reduce the price premium on these types of products whenever possible because customers shouldn’t have to pay more to eat healthier. Customers should be able to choose knowing the biggest difference in these products is not the price, but rather that one is better for you.”

Walmart’s efforts will help you even if you don’t buy your groceries there. The company’s enormous clout with suppliers means that anything companies need to do for Walmart will reverberate throughout the free market.

Oldways and the Whole Grains Council salute Walmart for taking this important step. We look forward to the day when whole grain foods cost no more than their refined counterparts. And now, it looks like that day is coming a lot sooner. (Cindy)


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