Food systems have much to gain from whole grains, says expert

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This article is part of our special report Wholesome whole grains: how to encourage uptake in the EU.

Whole grains are a staple part of our diet but they can also play a key role in addressing our most pressing environmental challenges, including transitioning to a less meat intensive diet, according to a cereals expert.

“Studies show that whole grain foods save water, provide more food and less waste, and support better land use and healthy soil,” Michaela Pichler, secretary general of the international association for cereal technology and science, told EURACTIV.

She added that a diet where the cereal portion is based on whole grains can therefore “contribute not only to personal health but also to global and planetary health as it can improve several problems at once.”

In this way, whole grains go some way to tackling the elusive “triple challenge” of simultaneously ensuring a nutritious supply of food while also protecting agrifood workers’ livelihoods and the environmental sustainability of the sector.

Wholegrains are any type of grain that has not been refined, and instead involves the entire kernel of the grain. As they are more nutrient-dense than refined grains, their health benefits are becoming increasingly well recognised.

But whole grains also play a key part in improving the sustainability of the agrifood sector, Pichler stressed.

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More than a grain of sense

Grains and other plant foods are also far less resource-intensive to produce than animal foods like dairy, eggs and meat, Pichler pointed out.

“In fact, whole grains require significantly less water than just about any other food we consume – which is a big deal when it comes to climate-change resilience and sustainability,” she said.

As the EU enters its third year of consecutive drought, amid mounting concerns over the effects of climate change, water use represents a key challenge for the resilience of EU food systems.

A 2012 study found that it takes only 0.51 litres of water to produce one calorie of grain, while the equivalent single calorie of beef requires 10.19 litres of water.

“It’s easy to understand why diets that emphasise a shift toward more meat and less grain place an incredible strain and burden on our environmental resources – this also having an effect on global greenhouse gas emission from cattle,” she said.

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No pain, all grain

Being energy-dense and less expensive to grow than many fruits and vegetables, whole grains are also an economical choice for a staple ingredient, Pichler said.

They can play a key role in the transition to less meat intensive diets, she added.

“Fibre-rich cereals are a major part of plant-based diets as a whole but also cereal derivatives such as the wheat protein gluten can be used for seitan production which is known to be used as a plant-based meat replacement,” she pointed out, adding that more work must be done to make consumers are made more aware of the multiple benefits of cereals

Crisis resilience

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the importance of sustainable and easily accessible basic commodities, and this year has served as a stark reminder of how important “resilient, sustainable, productive, and healthy food systems” are in our lives, Pichler pointed out.

“While fruits and vegetables add necessary nutrients and variety to our diets, it’s grains that have traditionally been the powerhouses of our sustenance,” she said. Compared to other crops, she added, grains are more resilient to variable weather conditions and, once harvested, can be stored for longer and be more easily transported from farm to consumer.

“Basic and versatile foods with a long shelf life are key in crisis situations as they are not only nutrient dense but also contribute to satiety,” she stressed.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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