What makes whole grains whole? Researchers target Europe-wide definition

By Caroline SCOTT-THOMAS contact

- Last updated on GMT

Definitions of whole grain vary from country to country
Definitions of whole grain vary from country to country

Related tags: Grain, Whole grain, Netherlands, Germany

A group of researchers has published a definition of ‘whole grain’ stemming from the HealthGrain EU project, in an effort to harmonise labelling and nutrition guidelines across Europe.

Many countries, including the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States recommend increasing whole grain consumption, as a mounting body of evidence has linked high whole grain intake with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. However, there is no legally endorsed definition for what constitutes a whole grain in Europe, and different countries have different standards – or no standards at all.

Following publication of the definition in Food and Nutrition Research​ this week, the paper’s co-author, Jan-Willem van der Kamp of TNO Food and Nutrition in the Netherlands, said: “Most supermarkets today are stocked with foods that originate from many different countries. When you read ‘25% whole grain flour’ on one product label; the same claim on a different label could mean something quite different nutritionally. If use of this definition is adopted broadly, this inconsistency eventually would cease.”

He told FoodNavigator that it is widely accepted that ‘whole grain’ refers to a combination of the three parts of a grain: The endosperm, which is the grain’s largest part and provides mostly starch; the germ, where sprouting begins; and bran, the grain’s protective high-fibre outer layer. However, in Italy, for example, the word ‘integrale’ – which translates as whole grain – can refer to just the endosperm and the bran, while in other countries there is no definition.

The published definition – available online here​ – reads:

  • Whole grains shall consist of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked kernel after the removal of inedible parts such as the hull and husk. The principal anatomical components – the starchy endosperm, germ and bran – are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact kernel.
  • Small losses of components – that is, less than 2% of the grain/10% of the bran – that occur through processing methods consistent with safety and quality are allowed.

Van der Kamp explained: “In some countries, for instance in Germany, it is common practice to remove the very outer layer of the grain because it contains the most impurities. We have included that option in our definition.”

He said that individual countries were already beginning to adopt the definition and this would continue to happen on a country-specific basis.

“Eventually it would be great to get this accepted all over Europe.”

He added: “Nestlé has informed me they are busy with a policy paper on grains and the HealthGrain definition will be included in this policy paper on grains. It is being taken up by big companies that operate across countries.”

Related topics: Ingredients, Health

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