The Whole Grain Stamp - a nifty little black and yellow food packaging label that has done wonders for the bowels of our American cousins - was launched recently into the UK, in a move that would have our back-page dietician Dr Allinson rolling around joyfully in his grave.
Equally chuffed was ingredients supplier British Bakels, which launched the stamp into the UK at the Baking Industry Exhibition in April, on the back of a multi wholegrain bread mix for craft bakers. Supermarket Morri-sons ran with the idea, featuring the stamp on its in-store Multi Wholegrain Crusty Cob bread, made with Bakels’ mix, as a four-week manager’s special, but the promotion has since ended.
Since then, however, a problem has arisen. The trouble is that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) last month ruled against Nestlé featuring portion advice in its cereals advertising, thus fudging the issue on what can and cannot be marketed regarding whole-grain bakery products. A sticking point was Nestlé’s ’On your way to 3-a-day’ message in ads. So where does this leave the fledgling Whole Grain Stamp in the UK?
At present, the label features the typical amount of whole grains per serving, alongside the words "Eat 48g or more of whole grains daily". But this is based on a joint recommendation from the US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services in the US - not guidance from the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA).
Explaining its ruling, the ASA cited a lack of "consensus of opinion among experts" over the specific quantity of wholegrain food that people should eat on a daily basis. It also said the 3-a-day message caused confusion for consumers, who - some might say - have barely gotten to grips with five-a-day fruit and veg.
== UK POSITION ==
So where does the UK stand on whole grains? The ASA based its ruling on FSA’s guidance, which pointedly refuses to give a specific recommendation on how much whole grain people should eat. It says: "There is insufficient evidence from epidemiological studies suggesting a beneficial impact of consumption of particular frequencies of whole-grain intake on overall health."
Try telling that to Cynthia Harriman, director of food strategies at the Whole Grains Council, who told BB that the research was stacking up in support of the benefit of whole grains, including from the World Health Organisation. "There is overwhelming research reflected in various government guidelines; country after country is really making a big push for whole grains for the better health of their citizens," she said.
The FSA has commissioned two trials to assess the impact of increased consumption of wholegrain foods on the risk of cardiovascular disease, but an outcome is not expected until late 2009. So until then, there is unlikely to be any movement on wholegrain portion guidance.
This is despite a consensus being reached in the US and Canada on the ’three-a-day’ recommendation. The Whole Grains Council - a not-for-profit body set up in 2003 - developed the scheme in the US and it has chimed well with consumers, prompted by wholegrain guidance in 2005 and a clarification in 2006. Sales of whole grains have since gone through the roof.
From April, the scheme was showing signs of early momentum in the UK, with upmarket sourdough bread brand La Brea jumping on board (any company can apply for a licence to carry the label for a fee). Now the ASA has confused the matter for manufacturers and retailers. Paul Morrow, MD of Bakels, said: "It was a ruling on advertisements, not point- of-sale materials, but it certainly would be a warning to steer clear of the ’three-a-day message’."
Trading Standards officer David Brown of West Sussex County Council said they would be looking into the issue to clarify where retailers stand. He said: "If the way it’s used is misleading, then it’s got the potential to fall foul of the ASA code or the Food & Safety Act."
== PROMPT ACTION ==
Clout from Nestlé Cereal Partners, which is not taking the ASA ruling lying down, could prompt some action from the ASA that would ripple through to bakery. A spokesperson for Nestlé said it is would "commence dialogue with the FSA to establish the basis on which they will recommend the consumption of whole grains and the recommended quantities to be consumed". And the Whole Grains Council has stated there are no plans to remove portion information from the Whole Grain Stamp in the UK.
As for Morrisons, a spokesperson insisted the retailer was not in the business of dictating healthy eating to its customers. "We wouldn’t give customers advice saying they should eat three portions. It’s about highlighting the fact that it’s part of a balanced diet," she said.
This is backed up by Harriman who argued the stamp is used as "shorthand" by consumers seeking out healthy wholegrain foods, rather than as a calculator. "If it ever becomes onerous or requires consumers to do the math, it wouldn’t be successful."
One way around portion claims would be simply to change the marketing emphasis. As Harriman said: "In many ways, the ’eat wholegrain with every meal’ message is more evocative than portion size."
=== Government guidelines for whole grains around the world ===
USA 3 or more servings daily (1/2 your grains)
Canada 3 or more servings daily (1/2 your grains)
Australia Eat plenty of cereals... especially whole grain
France Bread should be preferably whole grain or semi-whole grain
Germany Plenty of cereal products... preferably made of whole grain
Hungary 5-9 units/day of cereals (mostly whole grains)
Greece 8 servings/day of "non-refined cereals"
Slovak Republic Increase intake of cereals (mainly whole grain products)
=== Whole grains up in the air ===
In 2005, the FDA issued dietary guidelines in the US, recommending that Americans increase their whole grain consumption to at least three servings a day - tripling the average consumer’s whole grain intake. No such guidance exists in the UK from the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
The FSA has commissioned two research projects that look at consumption of wholegrain foods and cardiovascular disease risk factors. One of these trials has recently completed and is currently under peer review before finalisation of the report. The other project will not report until the end of 2009.
A spokesperson for the FSA said it is too early to determine the likely implications of both pieces of research and whether this would lead to a review of government advice on whole grain consumption. He said: "Depending upon the outcome of the research projects, together with any other published evidence, the FSA would consider whether there was sufficient new information to warrant a review of advice involving relevant independent scientific committees."
The Agency has no current plans for such a review or to change its healthy eating advice on wholegrain foods which, for now, merely encourages people to choose wholegrain foods whenever possible as part of a balanced diet.