09/10/2014 06:58 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Whole Wheat-ifying School Lunch: Could It Work?

I've been playing with grains and flours for many years, and replacing white with whole grain is one of my favorite experiments, so I'm often asked: Will kids eat whole wheat? 

Whole wheat pizza to the test 

That's the question a new study in Public Health Nutrition investigates, and in order to do that they compared about 500 kids' reaction to whole wheat and refined grain pizza in restaurants and in a Minneapolis/St Paul elementary school cafeteria. Kids' acceptance of the pizza was measured by how much of it they consumed -- the amount they sent to the trash after the meal revealed that quite nicely -- and by what they had to say about their slice. The whole wheat crust was 55 percent whole wheat, made with white whole wheat flour, which is a grind of a wheat type that has a lighter bran hue and milder flavor.

The researchers, led by Aimee Tritt, found that the crust type made no difference to how much the kids ate, or to how much they liked the pizza. 

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise us to eat at least half of grains as whole, and the updated school lunch program benchmarks require school menus to move in that direction. Reformulation of popular foods is an easy way to reach that target, and pizza seems to be an ideal target -- 1 in 5 kids eat it on any given day, reformulation isn't hard, and the results satisfied the kids in this study.

This is good news for schools adapting to the new school meal standards. Whole wheat pizza didn't end up in the trash, as many objectors to the reforms fear. 

Whole wheat-ifying the menu

Can we use this approach for everything? Should we?

Not all flour-based foods lend themselves as well to recipe substitutions, and while I find that breads are easy (and honestly, whole wheat ones are tastier, richer), great whole wheat pasta is quite hard to make (please tell me if you've found it.)

Flour can be substituted discreetly, and kids will improve their fiber and nutrient intake without any cognitive effort and without changing their habits, but some of the best ways to eat whole grain are by introducing the unground whole grain: brown rice, oats, quinoa, corn, bulgur, farro and wheat berries are very tasty, and we need to give kids a chance to enjoy them, and overcome the default towards white and soft foods. Will school lunches feature some of that, or just substitute the flour in tortillas and biscuits?

On the other hand, for some grain-based foods -- for me at least -- whole wheat-ifying doesn't make a lot of sense. A donut made with whole-wheat flour is just slightly healthier that the refined wheat one, but that doesn't make it into a healthy food, and the whole wheat-ification might confuse us into forgetting it's a food to consume rarely. Whole wheat desserts are first of all desserts, to be consumed in moderation -- the whole grain halo changes very little. Personally, I'd rather indulge in a piece of cake in its best possible incarnation than bother with making it just a little more nutritious.

Let's hope schools won't just be looking for the easy, processed foods shortcuts to 50 percent whole grain, but also for ways to improve kids' eating habits and to add variety to the grain offerings. 

Dr. Ayala