This perception, he said, has stayed with consumers since the days of the low-carb craze, and it is up to the grains industry to transform this image to one of 'relevant' and 'good' energy.
Speaking Thursday at first European congress of the American Association of Cereal Chemists International (AACCI) in Montpellier, France, Francesco Pantò examined falling levels of cereal consumption in developed countries, and presented five 'real-life' ways on how to revert the trend.
According to Pantò, cereals are becoming less relevant in people's lives, as their nutrition moves from a situation of survival to a situation of choice.
For example, information from the US Department of Agriculture's ERS, which examined meat and grain consumption between 1950 and 2000, revealed that meat consumption peaked in 2000; until the emergence of low-carb diets, grain consumption was also on the increase. In Italy, a study from 1996 revealed that the country's population was meeting recommended daily intake levels for everything apart from complex carohydrates.
"People are moving from tradition to knowledge, but knowledge isn't enough to change dietary behavior. People are increasingly aware that they must eat better, but they don't apply this in their choices," he said.
For example, the new US government dietary guidelines released two years ago placed a high emphasis on whole grains, and this resulted in a great industry shift towards whole grains. But the consumer shift has only been partial, he said.
"More than two thirds of the whole grains that Americans eat are consumed at breakfast. Lunch and dinner together contribute only 30 percent of the whole grains we eat - and many of the whole grain foods eaten at these meals are brown bag sandwiches on whole wheat bread," he said.
"All the opportunities are out there, there's no more time to sit and wait."
In the past, he said, cereals were eaten because they were available and cheap - today they need to be chosen. The challenge for industry is to ensure cereals are consumers' choice by making them better, healthier and simpler.
Pantò provided five examples to indicate the direction industry can take in order to make cereals more relevant in people's dietary perceptions.
The first is the development of new durum wheat varieties to allow special product features that can differentiate them. This strategy aims to establish a culture for grains and gain products like that of grapes and wine - grains would be selected for their variety, and the particular grain variety would then be applied to food products.
Secondly, whole grains need to be marketed as mainstream and everyday products. New milling approaches need to be developed in order to ensure the high quality and taste of whole wheat products. Trying to produce whole wheat products through traditional milling techniques is usually a shortcut, said Pantò, and does not provide convincing results. He provided the example of Bailla's Integrali pasta products, made using a patented process, which are marketed as being "for those who know what tastes good".
Pantò followed with three examples of Barilla's new product lines that claim to "make cereals more relevant".
The third strategy he recommended is for food firms to use innovation through technology to incorporate new grains into familiar products. Barilla's recently launched line of Orizzonti products made with durum wheat, barley and spelt, are prepared just like pasta and claim to bring naturally fibre-rich grains to the table in an easy, quick way.
Pantò's fourth strategy sticks with the idea of convenience, and promoting the goodness of cereals and fibre. Barilla's Grancereale new product line contains 8 to 10 percent fibres, and is marketed as allowing consumers to have cereals with them at any time of the day and everywhere: at home, at work, for a snack on-the-go or at breakfast.
Finally, Pantò suggests the benefits of adding extra components to cereal products in order to make them into a more complete meal. Using a success example from the US market, Pantò demonstrated how Barilla introduced a product that "goes beyond pasta". Barilla Plus contains cereals, legumes and flaxseed, and is marketed as a good source of fibres, proteins and heart-healthy omega-3 - "a naturally complete and nutritionally balanced meal solution".
According to the company, just a year after its launch, the line of Barilla Plus products had captured 3 percent of the total US pasta market, 30 percent of the 'better-for-you' pasta market, and generated over $20m turnover.
"This is an example of how a direction towards nutrition can become realistic and applicable in real life," said Pantò.
"People can live better with cereals if we give them good and strong reasons to choose them. It's up to all of us to bring more, better, healthier and easier-to-use cereals into people's lives," he told an audience of grain scientists and industry players.