SPOTLIGHT ON BRAZIL: Whole grain labeling… Should Brazil follow US or European criteria?

Picture courtesy of the Whole Grains Council

The Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency (ANVISA) is looking into ways to regulate whole grain labeling, with a definition expected to be ready for public comment by the end of the year. But should it follow US or European criteria, or come up with something new? 

Whole Grains Council director of food and nutrition strategies Cynthia Harriman - who recently attended a workshop on whole grains in Brazil's capital Brasilia with ABIA (the Brazilian food manufacturers’ association), and ABIMAPI (the Brazilian pasta organization) and ABITRIGO (the country’s wheat milling association) - says stakeholders want a definition that is both scientifically sound and practical for the food industry.

The US, she told FoodNavigator-USA, uses a somewhat “rigid” definition of whole grain, which requires that 100% of the grain kernel’s original bran, germ, and endosperm must be present in their original proportions in order for an ingredient to count as whole grain.

“Since that was put in place in 1999 by AACCI [American Association of Cereal Chemists]," said Harriman, "we’ve seen the European HealthGrain definition come out, which is much more nuanced and settles some of the mushy grey areas that are still left in FDA treatment of the simple whole grain definition.”

HealthGrain whole grain definition allows for up to 2% of the grain’s outer layers to be removed

Many speakers at the workshop – including myself – recommended instead the whole grain definition from Europe’s HealthGrain Forum, which allows for up to 2% of a grain’s outer layers to be removed,” added Harriman, who was invited to Brazil to share information about whole grain definitions, consumer attitudes, and the Whole Grain Stamp with government regulators and manufacturers.

These layers are where any potential unhealthy mycotoxins and pesticides are most likely to be found – and they’re also the bran layers with the fewest nutrients. With today’s sophisticated milling technologies capable of targeted, controlled peeling of grains – you can essentially peel little thin layers off without damaging the whole bran layer - this ‘remove up to 2%’ approach is believed by many to offer the best balance of health and safety."

Recombination or reconstitution?

“The HealthGrain definition also says it’s OK to do either recombination [when you put bran, germ and endosperm back together in the mill very accurately] or reconstitution [when you buy bran, germ and endosperm as a food manufacturer and then put them back together in your facilities]; whereas the FDA is a little uncertain about reconstitution; it’s a bit of a grey area in the US.

But if you’re a percent or two off using reconstitution, aren’t you a heck of a lot better off than if you were using refined grains? This is the way that a lot of the factories do it these days. The HealthGrain definition is a solid, sensible, well thought-through definition.”

There was also a general consensus at the workshop that the whole grain definition should focus on cereal grains and three pseudocereals (amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa), but not soy, flax or bran, she added.

Partially whole grain foods can contribute to health

She also noted that when it comes to a labeling system, “While 100% whole grain foods are great, it’s important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” and that using some wholegrains is better than using none at all.

She added: “A labeling system like the Whole Grain Stamp that clearly identifies foods with different levels of whole grain content can help both consumers and manufacturers easily get started on the road to healthier grains.

“We have 13 companies in Brazil using the stamp. It’s certainly something we recommend to ANVISA; we have a three level system. You’ve got products with some significant amount of whole grain, products with at least half of whole grains, and products where you’ve got 100% whole grains.

“Both for consumers and manufacturers, if you have different levels like different steps on the ladder, then consumers and manufacturers can work up gradually to using more whole grains.

"If you just have a symbol or standard packaging designation that just says ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ then you’ll probably set that in the middle, which means the bar is a little too high for manufacturers not used to formulating with whole grains and consumers not used to eating them, but then when everyone reaches that level, there’s no incentive to go any further."

She added: “The reason we designed the Whole Grain stamp the way we did is that we feel that there is a way to be constantly gently nudging the market to the next level.”

Labeling conventions for whole grains in Brazil

As for what’s currently happening in the Brazilian market, Harriman noted a wide range of labeling conventions (read her recent blog post HERE), with some brands making generic whole grain claims without referring to any named standard such as the Whole Grain Stamp or local equivalent, 306 products now approved to use the Whole Grain Stamp, and others referencing whole grains on front of pack but apparently lacking ingredients that would meet that definition.

“In the frozen foods aisle, we spotted a ‘whole grain’ pizza, whose dough ingredients included enriched flour, water, soybean oil, wheat bran, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, soy, wheat germ… and way down the list ‘oat flakes’ that could possibly be whole grain,” recalled Harriman.

Most companies - especially the large ones that are part of multinational businesses making whole grain claims in other markets - are, however, very responsible, about labeling, and would just like a level playing field, she added. 

"These companies want responsible regulation as they are making really good whole grain products that are on shelf next to products that say 'whole grain' in big letters, but don't have whole grains in there, and it's not fair. They just want a level playing field."

Whole grains include the entire grain seed (kernel), which consists of bran, germ, and endosperm.

Refined grains have been milled to remove the bran and germ, which creates a finer texture and improves their shelf life, but also removes dietary fiber, iron, and B vitamins.

Enriched grains are grain products with B vitamins and iron added.  

Get full details from the Whole Grains Council

Whole grains and health in Brazil

Given growing awareness in Brazil and elsewhere of the benefits of whole grains, one of the "strange" things about the Brazilian Dietary Guidelines  - last updated in 2014 - is that they don't reference whole grains at all, while white rice features in the category of 'natural or minimally processed' foods consumers are told to eat more of, she said.

"I think they missed a bit of an opportunity there. They kind of missed whole grains."

  • Read the 2006 FDA draft guidance on whole grain labeling HERE. No timetable has been made public for a possible final guidance.
  • Read the FDA standards of identity for various whole wheat products HERE.
  • Read the AACCI's 2013 characterization of whole grain products HERE.

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