Wholegrain foods are important sources of nutrients and phyto-protective substances, which are in short supply in the diet of people across Europe. Increasing the variety and availability of good-tasting, wholegrain foods and encouraging individuals to increase their consumption levels could have important public health benefits.
The protective role of wholegrains
Cereal foods are an essential component of the daily diet throughout Europe, and are major sources of dietary carbohydrates, fibre and protein. Wheat makes up most of European cereal consumption, and usually only the inner part of the grains, in the form of refined white flour, is used in baked goods like bread and cakes, pasta, breakfast cereals and other foods. However, this consumption pattern needs to be re-evaluated urgently in the light of recent epidemiological findings, which provide powerful evidence about the protective role of wholegrain foods against several diseases, including coronary heart disease (CHD), certain types of cancer and type 2 diabetes. Wholegrain food consumption has also been associated with lower body weight in middle-aged women compared with those who consumed more refined grain foods.
The ‘wholegrain package’
The most important cereal grains in Europe are the seeds of wheat, rice, maize, oats, rye and barley, all of which are members of the grass family. The structure of all grains is similar and is made up of three parts: the inner starchy endosperm, the germ or embryo and the outer bran, which forms a protective layer around the grain. Dietary fibre (insoluble and soluble types, depending on the grain) has long been considered the major health-protective component of wholegrains. However, there is now increasing evidence of other substances in wholegrain that have health benefits, including vitamin E and a range of B vitamins, a variety of minerals such as iron, magnesium, zinc and selenium and several protective phytochemicals. This multitude of nutrients and health-promoting substances may act together synergistically to exert a greater benefit to health from the ‘whole package’ than might be achieved from the sum of the individual components.
Healthy, good-tasting food choices
Good taste, health, convenience and price are typically mentioned criteria behind food choices among European consumers. Cereal-based products already provide a wide choice of foods and fulfill various roles in food culture in different parts of Europe. Although taste and healthiness are often considered as opposite factors in food choice, consumers today can make healthy, wholegrain choices from a large number of pleasant-tasting options.
HEALTHGRAIN: research in Europe
Wholegrains are now receiving some well-deserved recognition. For example, European scientists are collaborating in a new HEALTHGRAIN project funded by the European Commission within the Sixth Framework Programme, the objective of which is to improve and enhance the nutritional value and health benefits of cereals, and to better use wholegrains in modern foods. The HEALTHGRAIN project began in 2005 and will study consumer expectations and the sensory quality of bioactive cereal foods, develop new technologies to enable the production of foods containing health-promoting grain constituents such as dietary fibre, oligosaccharides and phytochemicals such as phytoestrogens (lignans), polyphenols and antioxidants, and demonstrate the relevance of these compounds in health, especially control of blood sugar levels and insulin metabolism. There is also a comprehensive dissemination programme to communicate the health benefits of wholegrains to the European food industry and to health professionals.
The science will also underpin health claims in the UK, Sweden and the USA that recognise the importance of wholegrain foods in reducing risk of coronary heart disease and some cancers.
The physiological effects of wholegrains and their role in improving health are as yet only partly understood. The new studies underway in Europe will help identify the important components and the biological mechanisms behind the observed health benefits.
- HEALTHGRAIN EU Integrated Project 2005–2010. Exploiting bioactivity of European cereal grains for improved nutrition and health benefits. www.healthgrain.org
- Jacobs D.R. Jr & Gallagher D.D. Wholegrain intake and cardiovascular disease: a review. (2004) Current Atherosclerosis Reports 6, 415–423.
- Liu S., Willett W.C., Manson J.E., Hu F.B., Rosner B. & Colditz G. Relation between changes in intakes of dietary fiber and grain products and changes in weight and development of obesity among middle-aged women. (2003) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78, 920–927.
- Richardson D.P. Wholegrain health claims in Europe. (2003) Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 62, 161–169.
- Slavin J. Why wholegrains are protective: biological mechanisms. (2003) Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 62, 129–134.
- Venn B.J. & Mann J.I. Cereal grains, legumes and diabetes. (2004) European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 58, 1443–1461.