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Kara and I spent last week in Beijing, participating in a Whole Grain Forum jointly organized by China’s Public Nutrition and Development Center (PNDC), the Whole Grains Council, and the Grains for Health Foundation.
In a day and a half of sessions and in discussions with Chinese leaders, we learned a lot about the major issues facing China as the PNDC plans the country’s ﬁrst-ever major campaign to promote whole grain consumption. These issues include:
What’s a serving? China’s dietary guidelines recommend eating 50-100 grams of whole or high-ﬁber grains daily, but how do you convey that to consumers? In the U.S., we recommend eating 48g or more of whole grain ingredients by consuming three or more servings of whole grain foods daily. In China, meals more often consist of as many as a dozen small dishes, making it a challenge to count servings, or to use a packaging symbol like the Whole Grain Stamp.
Is “mostly whole” safer? Pesticide use is high in China, and damp storage conditions in less-developed rural areas often create conditions conducive to mycotoxins (poisonous fungi). Removing the outer bran layers of grains can sharply reduce pesticides and mycotoxins. Would China be better oﬀ using state-of-the-art technology to peel oﬀ the grains’ outer layers, while retaining the inner bran layers and the aleurone, where it seems many of the most nutritious parts of the grain are found? Insistence on a strict deﬁnition of whole grain as containing all of the bran, germ, and endosperm in the original kernel may not in fact be best for health and food safety in China’s context.
How can we separate whole grains and hard times? China has a long history of painful famines; until as recently as three decades ago, many Chinese regularly did not have enough to eat. “All of you, 45 and older, when you were a kid you ate whole grains,” said one speaker, Qu Lingbo. No one threw out the bran and germ (about 20% of grain volume) during tough times. Todays white steamed buns and noodles are considered a symbol of prosperity, of leaving the hard times behind – so how do Chinese nutrition authorities convince the people to go “backwards” when whole grains have such a close association with hunger and hard times?
What kinds of whole grain foods should be promoted? Western companies like Nestlé (in partnership with General Mills), Kraft, and Grupo Bimbo are already oﬀering good whole grain foods in China, and since these foods – breakfast cereals, crackers, western bread – are new to the Chinese anyway, they may be a good way to promote whole grains. Or, should the focus be on oﬀering tasty, whole grain versions of Chinese staples, like steamed buns, noodles, and rice? Several speakers talked up the beneﬁts of sprouted brown rice, which oﬀers more nutrition than regular brown rice, while also cooking up with a tender mouthfeel more similar to white rice. We suspect the best answer is “all of the above!”
Should beans be considered whole grains? The Chinese have an ancient tradition, dating back as far as 2800 BCE, that ﬁve sacred grains should be the basis of every diet. Various versions of the list exist, but soybeans, rice, wheat, proso millet and foxtail millet usually ﬁgure prominently, with hemp in place of rice in some versions. A few speakers at the conference argued that, due to this tradition, legumes should be included in any deﬁnition of whole grains, even though they are not included in most other international deﬁnitions.
While the issues facing the PNDC are many, we have no doubt that China will ﬁnd a way to improve its people’s health through healthier grain foods. According to speaker Wang Ruiguan, the Chinese have already set a goal of increasing sprouted brown rice from 3% of consumption to 15% by 2015, and of increasing whole grain ﬂour from 11% to 25% in the same period. Several speakers also argued for whole grains as a way to increase grain supplies, by using the whole grain. (A bushel of wheat yields about 42 pounds of reﬁned ﬂour or 60 pounds of whole wheat ﬂour, so consuming whole grains stretches the yield of grain crops by about a third.)
Oldways and the Whole Grains Council look forward to continued partnership with PNDC in their important eﬀorts to improve the health and nutrition of the Chinese people. (Cindy)