This article is part of our special report Whole grains: key part of healthy and sustainable 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.
Michaela Pichler is the secretary-general of the International Association for Cereal Science and Technology and works with The Whole Grain Initiative, which aims to promote and encourage the uptake of whole grains in Europe.
She spoke to EURACTIV’s Natasha Foote on the sidelines of a recent event to mark the first International Whole Grain Day. The event gathered researchers and policymakers to highlight the positive impact of whole grains on nutrition, wellbeing, and sustainability.
What are whole grains and why are they important?
Usually, grains are processed to remove parts of the kernel but whole grains involve the entire, intact kernel after the inedible parts are removed. From a consumer perspective, it is important that the grain stays whole, otherwise it denies the consumer of all the nutrients that are in other parts of the grain.
Today, there is a lot of evidence-based knowledge available which clearly shows a positive correlation between whole grain intake and positive health effects, and that whole grains are a key part of a healthy diet.
Currently, the intake of whole grains in Europe is very low, and it differs a lot from country to country. I think this is important to understand why there are these differences. Sometimes it’s culturally based. Many countries are not used to eating them and are reluctant to taste whole grain products.
What are the main barriers to the adoption of whole grains in the EU?
I would say the lack of an accepted definition that everybody can refer to in their own regulations and means everyone can start from a common base is one of the biggest barriers.
The Whole Grain working group came already to a conclusion what is whole grain is an ingredient, and now they have started to discuss what is the definition of whole grain food. Currently, this differs a lot. So, for example, there are countries where 70% of whole grain ingredients in a product makes it a whole grain food, while others say it has to be higher.
This is important for setting industry standards and for promoting the results of the consumption of whole grains.
How can consumers be encouraged to increase their uptake of whole grain?
Firstly, it’s really important to talk about whole grains with all involved stakeholders. Once people start to speak about whole grains, people then decide to taste them and then, of course, share it with their kids. This is so important because education starts really from day one when kids are very small.
I think it’s on us and everybody in the whole chain, from fork to farm, to share this knowledge in a way that the consumer can easily understand and then can make their own decision. Nobody wants to force anybody to do something. But what we want to do is make the knowledge and data as accessible as possible so consumers can make the best choice. For this, we need to make sure that this information is really based in fact and evidenced.
What is the role of industry in this?
Consuming whole grains doesn’t have to be difficult – it can just mean swapping products for whole grain versions. For this, we need industry support to create palatable whole grain products and create consumer demand for whole grains. Ultimately, it’s important to remember that it’s the industry who is the first one that faces the consequences if something fails with the consumers, so we need to work on increasing awareness about whole grains.
What role can labelling play in the development of incorporating whole grain products?
Labelling has a really important role in generating trust on the consumer side. With so many different labels we have to be very careful not to overload the consumer with information, so it has to be quick and easy for the consumer to make the best choice.
We should be careful, however, about labelling. For example, if a product has a high whole grain content but a high amount of sugar and fat, this can be an issue. It’s important to be clear that just because there are whole grains, it doesn’t necessarily mean the product is healthy, so this is something that needs to be considered.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]