Brazil's whole grain headache: 'Refined, fortified flour is not whole grain,' campaigners tell ANVISA

High fiber foods, including whole grain pasta and bread. © GettyImages/fcafotodigital
High fiber foods, including whole grain pasta and bread. © GettyImages/fcafotodigital

Related tags Whole grain Fiber

Brazilian food authority ANVISA's open consultation on whole grain labeling ended last month, prompting public health experts to reiterate calls for stricter criteria.

Brazil’s food regulatory authority ANVISA is in the process of revising the standard (RDC nº 203/2005​) for food products made with cereals, starches, and flour. Currently, this standard does not specify the amount of whole grain flour or cereal a product must contain for it to make a whole grain claim.

This means that products made with refined flour fortified with fiber can make a whole grain claim, something consumer rights organization IDEC believes is confusing.

"ANVISA needs to accurately define the criteria regarding the characterization and identification of whole grain products,”  ​IDEC nutritionist Rafael Arantes said. “The information on the packaging must meet consumers’ expectations, ensuring they are not cheated and can actually benefit from eating a whole grain product.”

Next steps  

The regulatory authority held an open consultation from December 2018 until last month, and has given itself until the end of June this year to study the opinions submitted. It will hold a public consultation in the second half of 2019 and propose an updated regulation for whole grain products.

The review is expected to result in minimum levels for the Brazilian market.

What is considered whole grain elsewhere?

In the US, 100% of the grain kernel’s original bran, germ, and endosperm must be present in their original proportions for an ingredient to count as whole grain.

In Europe, according to the HealthGrain definition, manufacturers are allowed to remove up to 2% of the grain’s outer bran layer, which contains the fewest nutrients and can also harbor pesticide traces and mycotoxins.

IDEC: 'Misleading yet not illegal'

According to IDEC, this review is well over-due.

In 2016, it conducted a survey of products ​making on-pack whole grain claims, including Arcor's Triunfo brand and Nestle's Nesfit.

It found that only three out of the 14 biscuits surveyed contained whole grain flour or used whole grains as the main ingredient, and none of the products had a high fiber content. Brazilian regulations allow food manufacturers to make a ‘source of fiber’ claim if the product contains at least 2.5g per portion. 'High fiber’ claims are authorized for foods with a minimum of 5g of fiber per portion.

After the survey, Arcor said its combination of flour with added bran and oat fiber was based on extensive sensory analysis and presented a satisfactory nutritional profile while Nestle removed the 'source of fiber' claim from Nesfit's website. 

A spokesperson for Nestlé Brasil told FoodNavigator-LATAM that, according to its internal guidelines, products only make the on-pack claim 'contains whole grains' if it contains at least 8 g of whole grain per serving.

"Nesfit brand cookies, for example, since this year have had their recipe composed exclusively of 100% whole grains. Other Nesfit products, such as vegetable drinks, can also reach 100% whole grains," ​the spokesperson said.

According to IDEC, which has been working with ANVISA experts on the issue, none of the brands it surveyed was breaking the law, and therein lies the problem.

Ana Paula Bortoletto, nutritionist and research coordinator at IDEC said: “As there is no specific legislation, the industry has carte blanche to claim that ultra-processed products are whole grain even when they do not have any type of whole cereal, as seen in five cookies [we] analyzed​."

In the meantime, IDEC advises Brazilian consumers to study ingredient lists, prioritizing foods where whole grain flour is the first ingredient in the list.

Is fiber fortification a solution?

integral, whole wheat, cereal, pasta,minoandriani
Whole grain in Portuguese is 'integral' © GettyImages/minoandriani

The Brazilian Association of Industries of Biscuits, Pasta, and Breads & Processed Buns (ABIMAPI) offers the same advice.

Not every whole form of bread said to be whole grain is, in fact, whole grain,” ​writes nutrition consultant Marcela Tardioli on the ABIMAPI  website. “Always be aware of the label. The first ingredient described is the one that has the highest amount in the product. For bread to be considered whole grain, the first ingredient in the list should be 'whole wheat flour' and not 'wheat flour enriched with iron and folic acid', for example.”

Brazil's 2014 dietary guidelines​, ​which won international praise, recommend eating foods high in fiber but do not mention whole grain at all. (A "missed opportunity​" according to the international Whole Grain Council.)

However, Semiramis Domene, assistant professor of nutrition in the department of public health at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP), said fortifying refined flour with extra nutrients, such as fiber, does not necessarily replicate the nutritional qualities of a whole grain flour.

"Even if the final amount of the blend accurately reproduces the original [fiber] contents, the effects will be different,"​ she told IDEC. "The same goes for other components, such as minerals and vitamins.”

Domene suggested manufacturers prefer to use fortified refined flour because it is cheaper. "Because it has fewer nutrients, refined wheat flour is preserved for longer, which reduces losses and, consequently, reduces operating costs."

Grupo Bimbo: Whole grain is 'a basic criterion' for Brazilians

Consumer preference for white, light and fluffy bakery products - as opposed to the darker, denser texture of whole grain - may also play a role, added Domene.

However, consumer tastes are changing. At a two-day workshop on whole grain in Brasilia​ in 2017, marketing director for Grupo Bimbo Brazil Bruna Tedesco, said: “Being whole grain is a basic criterion​” among Brazilian consumers.

As of 2017, 306 products were approved to use the on-pack international Whole Grain Council logo in Brazil.

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