Wholegrain bread and other wheat products are full of components that are good for our health. But new EU-funded research shows that the amount of dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals that can be sourced from wheat varies substantially from one variety of wheat to the next. In fact, some varieties can provide us with as much as four times more goodness. The finding is part of the HEALTHGRAIN study that suggests we could be adapting existing varieties of wheat or producing new varieties to provide us with more health benefits. HEALTHGRAIN received almost EUR 11 million in funding under the 'Food quality and safety' Thematic area of the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).
Under HEALTHGRAIN ('Exploiting bioactivity of European cereal grains for improved nutrition and health benefits'), 40 organisations from 15 European countries, including Belgium, Germany, Hungary and Poland, have been conducting advanced research on the health-protective compounds of whole grains. The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is coordinating this integrated project, which began in June 2005 and is set to end on 31 May 2010.
The main aim of the researchers is to inspire nutritious and convenient cereal-based foods that contain high amounts of these components, and have the potential to prevent different types of disease, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The latest findings add to a significant body of scientific and technological work produced by the team since the project's launch, and that will ultimately provide considerable benefits to consumers, plant breeders, the wheat processing chain, and beyond.
The HEALTHGRAIN partners have identified markers for dietary fibres, tocopherols (a fat soluble chemical essential to human health, better known as vitamin E) and sterols (chemical compounds) that can be used by plant breeders in breeding programmes to harness the kind of genes that could enhance certain bioactive compounds, particularly those in unadapted germplasm (collection of genetic resources for an organism).
Due to the lack of quick and affordable analytical systems, the researchers are now developing new tools —, e.g. NIR (near infrared) calibrations, antibodies and molecular markers — that can be used by plant breeders, grain traders and processors, as well as members of the food industry.
Beyond the science itself, HEALTHGRAIN has in the last five years forged an active network of research organisations, industries and consumer-related organisations that will remain in place after the project formally ends this month.
The role of the HEALTHGRAIN forum, which has its own dedicated website, is to disseminate the results generated under the project as well as to encourage new research, to facilitate international cooperation, and to coordinate national research activities in the area. The forum will continue to pursue the goal of uncovering the health potential in grain food production, and to use this knowledge to help develop, process and market healthy cereal foods that are in synch with consumer lifestyles.
But what do consumers actually think about a new generation of cereal-based products with enhanced health benefits? Studies conducted under HEALTHGRAIN into the expectations and perceptions of European consumers have found that whole grain products are considered overall to be better than refined cereal products in terms of healthiness, naturalness. They are also more nutritionally balanced and filling. These benefits were found to be stronger for consumers in Finland but less so for consumers in Italy and the UK.
In terms of buying power, the team's study on health claims had a positive impact in Germany, Finland and the UK, but a negative impact in Italy. Results suggested that producers would benefit from using health claims to market whole grain-based products but that these would need to be targeted differently in some European countries.
The project's many results, basic information on wholegrain products, and a link to the HEALTHGRAIN forum are available through the website.