Guidelines Provide A Definition of Whole-Grain Food

By Sally Squires
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006

For the first time, the federal government yesterday issued an official definition of whole-grain foods. The long-awaited nutritional guidance is designed to help consumers sort through a confusing -- and sometimes misleading -- array of foods that purport to contain whole grains but often do not.

Federal Dietary Guidelines issued last year recommend that Americans eat at least three one-ounce servings of whole grains daily, as they are proven to help cut heart disease and cancer risk. But until now, there has been no official definition of whole grains and no easy way for consumers to know that cracked wheat, stone-ground wheat, ordinary wheat flour and many other seemingly whole-grain ingredients are not the real thing.

"That's the problem," said Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. "Many of these foods have a mixture of whole and refined grains. You may be eating three times as much of the refined grains as the whole grains."

Under the draft guidelines issued yesterday by the Food and Drug Administration, whole-grain foods should contain the three key ingredients of cereal grains -- bran (the fiber-filled outer part of the kernel), endosperm (the inner part and usually all that is left in most processed grains) and the germ (the heart of the grain kernel.) Plus, these three ingredients need to be present in the same relative proportion as they exist naturally -- a way to be sure that manufacturers do not add back small amounts of each ingredient to highly processed food and then call it whole grain.

While the guidelines are aimed at food companies, "it's also very important for consumers to have consistent and uniform terminology for what consists of a whole grain," said Barbara Schneeman, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

The new definition is only a recommendation and is not legally enforceable, except where specific FDA regulatory or statutes already exist, Schneeman said. There will be a 60-day public comment period on the definition.

"We've been waiting for more guidance," said Robert Earl, senior director for nutrition policy for the Food Products Association. "Today, the FDA has clearly defined what is and what is not a whole grain."

What effect the new definition will have on whole-grain stamps carried on hundreds of products is uncertain.

"We're delighted that the FDA has moved forward at all," said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Whole Grains Council. The stamps are issued by the council, a Boston-based consortium of industry, scientists, chefs and the Oldways Preservation Trust. "The worst thing for manufacturers and consumers is limbo," Harriman said.

Some of the more familiar products that qualify as whole grains under the new definition include oatmeal, popcorn, shredded wheat and brown rice. So are barley, buckwheat, bulgur, wild rice, whole wheat, whole rye and the more exotic amaranth and quinoa.

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