Director of food and nutrition strategies at the Whole Grains Council (WGC) Cynthia Harriman caught up with Milling & Grains for a quick primer on what constitutes a whole grain food, the various degrees of how to label it and why fiber lends itself to consumer confusion. (Read the full text of the letter.)
What’s a whole grain, and what are the ways in which relative portions of the bran, germ and endosperm can be achieved?
There’s fairly widespread agreement on what a whole grain ingredient is—the definition of the bran, germ and endosperm in their original proportions. Where the issues come up are in the area of reconstitution, also called recombination in the mill. How do we get to those original proportions? It’s not as easy as it sounds in the real world, where mills generally divide milling into several different streams. It’s unusual for grains to be kept together because what we’re starting with is a live, variable plant, and we want to end up with a nutritious, dependable, consistent flour. The two aren’t always compatible.
You’re basing your formulation, baking time, pricing model—whatever—on a particular flour with a particular protein content or gluten level, when it happens that that stuff that comes in this year or this week is different from last year or last week. It’s only natural that mills put different kernels into the hopper or mix and match different streams to get the right mix. That has been fine when nobody was too concerned about whether we have the original proportions of grain, but with more attention on this process, that becomes more important.
What we get with milling side is something called mass balance, which means I put 2,000 tons of grain in the hopper at beginning, and when I take it out I still have 2,000 tons, maybe with a tiny bit of moisture loss. But I know I have all the parts, even if I take them apart. When you put them back together some place other than the mill, you don’t necessarily know whether you have all those parts in exactly the same proportions because there is no table or chart you and I can look up and say, for wheat, the germ needs to be 2.5% of weight, bran 14.6, and the rest endosperm, etc. That’s where it gets tricky.
So what’s the best test for this?
The best way is to test by nutrient. You can look in the USDA nutrient database and see that whole wheat flour requires X number of samples. So if I mixed this stuff in the mixing bowl in my factory, how does the nutrition compare?
Talk about the three different levels of labeling a whole grain food: 100% Whole Grain Foods , Whole Grain Foods (foods where 50% or more of the grain is whole) and Foods Contributing Whole Grains
What’s a whole grain food? is a big question on the agenda right now. When the 2005 Dietary Guidelines came out, the US Department of Agriculture said, ‘It’s easy! Let’s all eat whole grains, and here are examples: a slice of 100% whole grain bread, half a cup of 100% whole grain pasta, rice or oatmeal.’ It was easy, except that most people get most of their whole grains from a mix of whole and refined grains. Easy measurements don’t work when a product is made with mix of whole and refined grains.
So how do we label grain food in the real world? We have used the Whole Grain Stamp since 2005, which has two different labels: 100% whole grain foods, in which all grain is whole grain; then we have on the other level foods that are a mix. As long as they contain a significant amount of whole grains, which we at WGC, and a lot of other groups, define as 8 grams per serving. [The 8 g minimum was incorporated into the 2010 Dietary Guidelines.]
Then when you say you are going to call this product a whole grain cookie, bread or cracker because it contributes some amount of whole grains, what we’ve advised manufacturers do is, commonsense says if you’re going to use name ‘whole grain’, that product should contain more whole grain than refined grain. That’s the middle part in our letter to the FDA.
What is the WGC’s position on fiber when it comes to product labels?
A lot of consumers confuse fiber and whole grains. The fact is that there’s a body of scientific research done on cereal grains, per se. So if you take refined grains, for instance, and put some other fiber in there that isn’t a cereal fiber, you don’t get benefits comparable to the benefits of whole grain and cereal fiber. But it’s a ‘jury’s out’ type of thing at the moment.
That being said, we’re always proponents of real whole foods. This is what nature puts together; let’s not mix it up and take things from different foods when grains come with plenty of perfectly good nutrition on their own.