Yesterday AACCI came out with its much-deliberated characterization of a whole grain food. You’re probably asking, “Who is AACCI?” and “What the heck is a characterization?” while thinking you’ve got a pretty good idea of what a whole grain food is. Read on, though. This gets interesting.

AACCI (formerly the American Association of Cereal Chemists) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing knowledge about cereal science. I’ve been involved with AACCI for several years, and have great respect for all the plant researchers and product R&D experts I’ve met through AACCI, from whom I’ve learned so much. AACCI, in fact, came up with the original definition of whole grains in 1999, back when people were just starting to pay attention to whole grains. This definition became the basis of the Whole Grains Council’s definition in 2004, and was adopted by FDA in their 2006 Draft Guidance on Whole Grain Labeling. So we can (and do!) thank AACCI for the fact that there’s widespread international agreement on the definition of a whole grain ingredient as one that has all its bran, germ and endosperm in their original proportions.

A common definition for “a whole grain food” does not exist, however. You might think that’s an easy one: Oatmeal is a whole grain food, as is brown rice, and that slice of bread made entirely with whole grain flour. But what about the bread made mostly with whole grain, but with some refined grain mixed in? Or the vegetable soup that’s mostly vegetables, with a small amount of whole barley thrown in? Are they whole grain foods?

Depends who you ask. The FDA has one definition of whole grain foods for using health claims. USDA has one for labeling products containing meat and poultry (such as chicken pot pies with a whole grain crust), another for foods bought through the WIC program, and yet another for the National School Lunch Program. And that’s just in the U.S.; other countries have their own definitions of a whole grain food.

A few years ago, AACCI figured that perhaps they could help move this cacophony toward one universal definition of a whole grain food, one that could be used internationally to standardize whole grain health research around the globe, and one that could potentially guide regulatory efforts in many countries. AACCI’s Whole Grain Working Group / WGWG (of which I am a member) researched various existing standards, deliberated how such standards squared with the science, and explored which foods would qualify and which wouldn’t, to check for any unexpected “gotchas.”

After much discussion, the WGWG settled on this wording: “A whole grain product must contain 8 grams or more of whole grain per 30 grams of product.” The AACCI Board decided that it was more appropriate to call this a “characterization” than a “definition” and made clear that “the language does not impact statements about products that are allowed by the law, other ingredients that might be in a food product, or the naming of food products.”

Oldways and the Whole Grains Council are glad to see that AACCI’s approach to characterizing a whole grain food reinforces the near-universal recognition of 8 grams of whole grain as the credible threshold for a significant amount of whole grain — a standard that the Whole Grain Stamp helped establish in 2005.

As with virtually all proposed standards, though, AACCI’s new option has both its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it aligns fairly well with one definition of a whole grain food in the US Dietary Guidelines (8 grams per ounce equivalent). It lends itself to international use by avoiding any connection with “servings” which vary widely in different countries, and could also be useful in standardizing research on whole grains, which was one of AACCI’s goals.

However, one serious issue is that many good whole grain foods won’t qualify for this standard — even when all their grains are whole grains and they contain at least 8 grams of whole grain. Heat-and-eat grains are one category. Dry oatmeal qualifies; but if you sell it cooked, its weight increases five-fold and the water weight disqualifies it under the AACCI approach. Ready-to-eat combination foods are another category that this AACCI approach disenfranchises. Healthy foods such as “Broccoli, Spinach and Green Lentils Vegetable Pie” — with a whole grain crust containing 15 grams of whole grain — wouldn’t qualify. Nor would soups, whole grain beverages, pizzas with a whole grain crust, and many other mixed dishes full of whole grains.

We are not planning any changes in the Whole Grain Stamp based on the introduction of AACCI’s characterization, which has no legal or regulatory authority — and as we explained above, has some serious limitations. We applaud AACCI for its hard work in creating this characterization, and hope that it will serve as a good first step toward some future definition that includes all forms of whole grains in a meaningful way.

In the course of any deliberation like this involving a large group of people, there are some good ideas that inevitably get left on the cutting room floor. Inside scoop: my favorite definition during this process was that “a whole grain food has at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving, and at least half of its grain is whole grain.” This approach would address two of the drawbacks of the AACCI characterization: that it excludes some products that are 100% whole grain (as explained above) and that it potentially includes some products with more refined grain than whole grain.

In the end the WGWG voted for a simpler one-part wording that didn’t depend on the squishy term “serving” — since that’s another cacophony of definitions in the U.S., and most other countries don’t have defined servings. This whole earnest effort is still a work in progress and will probably go through additional iterations before there is a widely-accepted universal definition of a whole grain food.

So how do you characterize a whole grain food? Tell us what you think, in the comments. (Cynthia)

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