The recent EAT-LANCET report emphasised a ‘plant-forward’ diet where whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes comprise a greater proportion of foods consumed, as a means to improve both human health and the health of the planet.
John Athanatos is Head of Nutrition, Regulatory and Scientific Affairs at Cereal Partners Worldwide (CPW). CPW is the maker of Nestle Breakfast Cereals and is a Joint Venture between Nestle and General Mills.
There is a strong (and growing) body of scientific evidence that connects whole grain with a reduced risk of many non-communicable diseases – including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and some cancers.
The recent Global Burden of Diseases study has shown that a poor diet is responsible for more deaths globally than tobacco, high blood pressure, or any other health risk. Low consumption of whole grains was highlighted as on a par with excessive sodium consumption as THE leading dietary factors contributing to this.
Despite this, the consumption of whole grain remains worryingly low. In fact, dietary intake studies from various EU countries suggest the majority of Europeans eat significantly less whole grain than recommended.
How can we increase whole grain intakes?
Tuesday 19th of November 2019 marked the first ever International Wholegrain Day. The initiative brought together NGOs, policymakers, the scientific community and industry to draw attention to the need to address the issue of low consumption of whole grain. The event launched a discussion about what we have to do to increase intakes.
Cereal Partners Worldwide was one of the leading industry partners in this initiative. As a company that has invested heavily in making the majority of our portfolio whole grain, we have developed deep insight into consumer attitudes to whole grains and are passionate about helping to increase intakes.
Some of our most recent research was conducted with 16,000 consumers in various countries around the world. Our research suggests that there are 4 main obstacles to consumers choosing whole grain options:
- There is confusion identifying Wholegrain options
- They don’t fully understand the benefits
- They don’t think it will taste good
- They don’t know how much they should be eating
In order to tackle the above, I see roles for Policy Makers, Health Promoters and also the Food Industry.
The role of Policy Makers
Much of the confusion identifying whole grain options is the result of poor or non-existent regulation for labelling of whole grain foods. Whole grains are not nutrients and so do not come under rules for nutritional labelling.
Any regulation needs to take into account the fact that whole grains are incorporated into food in many different ways, all of which can contribute to overall intakes. In some cases, the grains are more intact (e.g. oatmeal) and can more easily be identified by consumers whilst in others, they are milled and used as flour together with other ingredients (e.g. bread, biscuits, breakfast cereals etc) and can be more difficult to distinguish.
There is a need for a harmonised definition for whole grain, minimum levels of whole grain to be eligible to claim content and other ways to mark the presence of whole grain. As well as helping to identify wholegrain options, this will create incentives for manufacturers to replace refined grain flour with wholegrain flour in their products and avoid misleading consumers.
The role of Health Promoters
By Health Promoters, I mean public health authorities both at Brussels level as well as at member state level, healthcare professionals and health NGOs. These actors need to help educate the public as to why it is important to consume more whole grain.
We see multiple campaigns focused on goals like increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, reducing sugar and yet very little effort is focused on increasing awareness of whole grains and their benefits.
I also believe introducing an easily understood target for people to aim for, could greatly improve the messaging. For example, the ‘5 portions of fruit&veg’ introduced in some countries have created a tangible and achievable goal to promote to populations. The US dietary guidelines suggest eating at least six servings of foods that contain a minimum of eight grams of whole grain to help reach the daily intake recommendation of 48g. Most EU countries do not have a quantitative recommendation as part of their dietary guidelines. This should be a priority.
The role of Industry
As manufacturers, we are able to increase the supply of whole grain options. We have the technology and the know-how to use whole grain flours in place of refined grain. We can innovate to bring new whole grain products to market that meet consumer’s taste expectations.
It is also important to recognise the role that reformulation can play here. We can reformulate existing products to replace refined flour with whole grain flour. This can be a form of ‘stealth health’ in that consumers increase their whole grain intake whilst continuing to enjoy the products they love.
Many manufacturers are also in the midst of reformulating to reduce sugar. What most people overlook is that in dry products the space occupied by sugar has to be replaced with something else. Typically this will be refined flour, starch or other sweeteners which is not really improving the carbohydrate quality of the food.
When manufacturers undertake sugar reductions they should look at replacing the sugar with wholegrain flour. For example, we are proud that over the last 15 years at Nestle Breakfast Cereals we have reduced sugar by over 20% across the portfolio. In the process, we have been able to replace much of that sugar with wholegrain flour.
One important point I would like to make is that incorporating whole grain flour instead of refined grain flour comes at a cost for a manufacturer. It creates technical issues with taste and texture, it reduces shelf life and creates more complexity in sourcing and quality control.
If we want to encourage more manufacturers to use whole grains we need to create incentives through appropriate labelling and communication possibilities, or by giving credit in Nutrient Profiling systems. For example, the NutriScore system that is becoming more widespread within the EU rewards the presence of fruits and vegetables, but not whole grains.
Partnership is the most effective way to increase Whole Grain intakes
I hope that what I have illustrated is how interconnected and overlapping the roles of the different actors are when it comes to improving wholegrain intakes.
It, therefore, should be no surprise that the very few examples we have of successful initiatives to increase whole grain consumption have come from effective Public-Private Partnerships.
In particular, the one most often cited as a best practice is the Danish Whole Grain Partnership. As a result of this collaboration between government, NGOs and industry, in less than a decade, the average whole grain intake of Danes increased from 36 to 63 g/10 MJ/day.
There is a clear need and opportunity both at EU level and within member states to create more of these types of partnerships, to help boost whole grain intakes and improve the carbohydrate quality in the diet. What role could the EU institutions play to facilitate this?
In conclusion, if we want people to increase their whole grain consumption and reduce their refined grain consumption we need to: tell them why, how and how much. And give them options they can clearly identify and that they will love. If we work together, through whole grain we can improve the health of EU citizens as well as the health of the planet.