Wholegrains slash risk of death by up to 24%, says UN food branch

Despite strong evidence pointing to the health benefits of whole-grains, their uptake across the EU remains low.  [SHUTTERSTOCK]

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

Regular consumption of whole-grains significantly reduces the risk of death,  a recent paper by the food branch of the United Nations has found, with stakeholders now calling for more action to promote whole-grains as part of a healthy diet.

Speaking at a recent event marking International Whole-grain Day, Patrizia Fracassi, senior nutrition and food systems officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN, said their recent joint paper on sustainable healthy diets suggests that consuming 50 grams of whole grains per day is associated with a “19 to 24% reduction in all-cause mortality amongst adults”.

More importantly, she added, across the 21 different regions included in the study, low whole-grain intake was identified as the “greatest risk factor for death and loss of disability-adjusted life years, with intakes less than 50 grams risking 3 million deaths and $82 million worldwide.”

“This evidence supports the case for making whole grains part of a sustainable healthy diet in line with the sustainable development goal to put an end to all forms of malnutrition,” Fracassi pointed out. 

Wholegrains are any type of grain that has not been refined, and instead involves the entire kernel of the grain. These types of grains are more nutrient-dense than refined grains and offer a host of environmental and health benefits, panellists said. 

Despite strong evidence pointing to the health benefits of whole-grains, their uptake across the EU remains low. 

The EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, highlights that that while consumption of red meat, sugars, salt and fats continues to exceed recommendations, consumption of whole-grain cereals is “insufficient”.

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Learning lessons from success stories  

One of the major barriers to increase uptake in the EU is lack of a clear definition, said Gitte Laub Hansen, executive project consultant at the Danish Cancer Society and WholeEUGrain, a European project focusing on the promotion of whole-grains. 

According to the EU science hub, whole-grain foods are defined differently across the EU and there is no legislation regarding their labelling at the EU level. 

However, places like Denmark have seen an increase in the intake of whole grains thanks to the establishment of clear guidelines for what constitutes a whole-grain product, coupled with a strong promotional campaign.

As such, whole grain consumption has reached the target goal of 75 grams per 10 megajoules per day in the majority of people. 

Bridging the health gap

Moreover, this increase in consumption has been seen across the board in the country.

“What we see in the European region is that there are large inequalities. So what happens when you focus on improving the intake of wholegrain, you need to be aware that you don’t widen the gap of social inequality in health,” Laub Hansen warned.

However, the Danish approach has seen the lowest quartile of whole-grain consumers in the population either double or more than double their intake.

“So actually, we are reducing the gap between the very healthy-eating part of the population and the less-healthy eating part of the population,” she pointed out. 

Work is currently underway to investigate how best to transfer the lessons from Denmark to other European countries, which includes the development of a common European guideline in 2022.

Whole grains 'key part of a healthy diet'

In an interview with EURACTIV, Michaela Pichler, secretary-general of the International Association for Cereal Science and Technology (ICC), spoke about the importance of whole grains, but also about the lack of industry standards, labelling and promotion of whole grain foods.

Labelling ‘key’ for consumers and industry

Labelling also played a key role in the success of the Danish campaign.

“We know that the logo plays a key role here. It is key for the consumers to identify the whole grain, but it also is an incentive for reformulation and developing new products for industry,” Laub Hansen added.

This is a challenge as many of the proposed food labelling schemes, such as the current EU front runner, the Nutriscore, are not necessarily adapted to whole-grains.

“A lot of these algorithms are based on nutrients like fibre, protein, sugar, fat, and you can’t necessarily just run a slice of bread through a lab test and see how many grams of whole grains are in it,” Kelly Toups, director of Oldways Whole Grains Council, pointed out. 

Instead, she advocated a “whole grain stamp” packaging symbol which denotes the grams of whole grains in the product. 

This can be important for consumers who are looking to incrementally increase their whole-grain uptake, she said. 

“We find that a lot of our consumers have to slowly work their way up to more and more whole grain over time,” she said, adding that the goal was to make sure there’s “something out there for everyone, no matter where they are on their whole-grain journey”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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