UK study results could unify global whole grain labelling system to end confusion

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

Researchers have identified 162 whole grain breads sold in the UK that are the most healthful. Pic: ©GettyImages/olgakr
Researchers have identified 162 whole grain breads sold in the UK that are the most healthful. Pic: ©GettyImages/olgakr

Related tags Breakfast cereals Grain Uk food standards Nutrition Whole grain

UK researchers suggest whole grain foods with a fiber:carb ratio of less than 10:1 have the lowest fat, sugar and salt content, which could set in motion a new whole grain labelling system to help consumers chose healthier options.

The University of Hertfordshire study evaluated the nutritional quality of breads and breakfast cereals sold in the UK – using a ≤10:1 carbohydrate:fiber ratio found to identify the most healthful whole grain products.

Foods meeting the ≤10:1 criterion are relatively healthy when assessed using the UK Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) nutrient profiling standards as a benchmark; the main exception being the sugar content of breakfast cereals.

The authors suggest the results – published online in Public Health Nutrition​ last month – could be used by food manufacturers to develop a badly-needed labelling system for whole grains, in addition to the FSA’s traffic light system.

“Our work shows that using the carbohydrate:fiber ratio helps to identify foods that have good nutritional value. It supplements the existing front-of-pack traffic light labelling currently in use. We suggest that food manufacturers should consider adopting this approach to help consumers,”​ said Dr Angela Madden, lead for Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Hertfordshire who supervised the project.

Universal disconnect

Currently, there is no globally recognized quantified recommendation for the intake of whole grains, although some countries do ‘recommend’ certain levels.

In Europe, food must have 51% whole grain by net weight in order to make a health claim, while in the UK, the Institute of Grocery Distribution proposes at least 8 g of whole grain per serving. In the US and Canada, the Whole Grain Stamp advocates 20% of whole grains per serving.

However, these recommendations are not binding, and non-statutory labelling is predominantly decided by industry representatives, raising concerns that some producers are focussing on the commercial benefits of whole grain rather than health purposes.

For example, the content level of nutrients like fats, sugars and salts, do not have a bearing on whether a product can be labelled whole gain or not.

The whole story

As such, researchers Bahar Ghodsian and Angela Madden set out to compare the nutrient content listed on food labels of breads and breakfast cereals sold through four major UK retailers against the FSA’s nutrient profiling standards.

The scientists found 266 breakfast cereals and 162 breads sold at Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s met the criterion (brands and producers were not undisclosed).

Numerous studies suggest that foods high in whole grain ingredients have a host of health benefits,​ including reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases,diabetes,obesity​ and some cancers.

Despite this, the intake of whole grains remains low worldwide, particularly in the UK. Data from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) shows that 45 % of UK adults ate less than one serving daily, while 18% consumed no whole grains over a four-day period.

Calls for action

In November,  Cereal Partners Worldwide called on governments and industries to make a global commitment promoting the health benefits of whole grains.  

This followed calls for action by the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and US Dietary Guidelines Technical Advisory Committee to develop a  globally unified definition of whole grain foods.

This could finally set in motion a universally accepted definition of whole grains, leading to the development of a new whole grain labelling system that will help consumers understand the benefits of whole grains and chose healthier options.


Evaluating the ≤10:1 wholegrain criterion in identifying nutrient quality and health implications of UK breads and breakfast cereals.

Authors: Ghodsian B & Madden A.

Public Health Nutrition, 1-8. doi:10.1017/S1368980017003718

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