Are the nutritional benefits of cereals being overlooked?
New research is shining a spotlight on the many nutritional attributes of cereals such as maize and wheat, with calls that they deserve greater consideration in supporting a healthy diet.
The review of agri-nutrition research and dietary guidance found that the potential health benefits provided by cereals were often overlooked or undervalued as part of nutritious diets, including their role in reducing non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
The study in Mexico considered that classification of these crops as ‘staples’ and mere energy providers, has contributed to this oversight.
However, reducing nutritional attributes to macro- and micro-nutrients misses other beneficial elements of cereals known as “bioactive food components”. These include carotenoids, flavonoids, polyphenols, and compounds that comprise dietary fibre and are essentially greater than the sum of their parts.
“Most wholegrain cereals provide differing amounts of proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins, in addition to being important sources of dietary energy,” said Jason Donovan, a senior economist at the CGIAR International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and co-author of the research.
“Only relative to other ‘nutrient-rich’ foodstuffs can cereals be described as ‘nutrient-poor’,” he explained.
Value in diversity
In the study, the authors called on researchers and policymakers to embrace the multiple dietary components of cereals to address both under- and over-nutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and the growing global problem of non-communicable diseases.
“Through increasing the availability of, and access to, healthy foods derived from cereals, we can better address the growing triple burden of malnutrition that many countries are facing,” explained Olaf Erenstein, co-author and director of CIMMYT’s socioeconomics programme.
“To feed the world within planetary boundaries, current intakes of wholegrain foods should more than double, and address tricky issues like the current over-processing, to make the most of the nutrition potential of maize and wheat.”
The authors state that, while some carbohydrates can create a glycaemic response that has negative effects on diabetes and obesity, dietary fibre in cereals comprises carbohydrates that are fermented in the large intestine with largely positive metabolic and health effects.
Furthermore, these beneficial attributes from the naturally occurring compounds found in maize and wheat can be enhanced through conventional breeding, genomic selection and bio- and industrial-fortification.
Addressing cereal processing methods
To illustrate this, scientists at CIMMYT have worked on new maize and wheat varieties with additional levels of vitamin A and zinc to help address some major global nutritional deficiencies. Researchers are also improving the ways in which cereals are produced, processed and stored to increase productivity and improve food safety while maintaining their nutritional benefits.
However, the processing of grains – and consequent loss of vitamins and minerals, thereby – must be addressed, alongside the propensity for manufacturers to use cereals in ultra-processed products that often contain unhealthy components.
Commenting on the need for greater understanding of the nutritional nuances of diverse food groups, Nigel Poole, co-author and Professor of International Development at SOAS University, London, said: “If we are to end hunger by delivering healthy, diverse and nutritional diets in the next decade, we need a broader and more nuanced understanding of the nutritional and health-promoting value of diverse foods, including cereals,”.
“Cereals and so-called ‘nutrient-rich’ foods are complementary in agri-nutrition, both of which require additional research, resources and attention so that one does not replace the other.”
The adage of a need for balance in all things is essentially being called for.
The study Agri-nutrition research: Revisiting the contribution of maize and wheat to human nutrition and health was published in Food Policy.