In the absence of definitive action from the FDA, food manufacturers should take the initiative to promote whole grains to the American public, clearly indicating if products are an excellent source or a good source of whole grains, the nation's Whole Grains Council (WGC) told FoodNavigator-USA.com.
The response comes soon after the FDA's (Food and Drug Administration's) denial of a petition by General Mills requesting the development of standard definitions for the whole grain content of foods.
"The problem is that it is easy to misunderstand the FDA's reaction to the petition, by believing it puts the health benefits of whole grains in question," said Cynthia Harriman, the WGC's director of food and nutrition strategies, adding that the FDA's response to General Mills illustrates that the agency understands the need to re-examine the issue.
Key to the issue is the "outdated notion" that whole grain is synonymous with fiber, as implied by a 1993 FDA ruling, which states that a food cannot claim to be 'high in' whole grains unless it is also 'high in dietary fiber.'
And according to Harriman, it is impossible for a normal-sized portion of any whole grain food to be an 'excellent source' of fiber (5g or more), or even a 'good source' (3g).
"Any whole grain food in the serving size recommended under the USDA's Dietary Guidelines will by definition not be high in fiber. People would have to consume huge portions- 4 cups of popcorn, 3 slices of whole wheat bread, or 8 cups of brown rice for instance- to receive those amounts of fiber," she said.
"The FDA's decision that it is not yet ready to act shows it is re-examining this earlier ruling. Had the agency believed it should follow the 1993 ruling then it would have gone ahead and agreed to the petition. So in a way, the denial is good news," she added.
But until a national standard is established, the WGC is prompting food companies to continue indicating whether their products are a 'good source' or 'excellent source' of whole grains, either independently or by using the WGC whole grain stamp.
"If we waited for the government to act, years could go by, the Dietary Guidelines could sink like a stone and no one would know about the benefits of whole grains. Until FDA action is taken, sitting on our hands doesn't seem like a good way to promote whole grains," said Harriman.
She added that the main problem in getting consumers to eat foods with whole grains is that they just cannot find them.
"Consumers know whole grains are healthy, that they probably should eat them, and they probably would, but they go into grocery stores and can't spot them."
"The FDA currently allows for foods with at least 51 percent whole grains by weight to carry the whole grain health claim, but this is in tiny letters and no one sees it."
"Manufacturers are also allowed to list the amount of whole grains in their products, but the problem here is that this doesn't mean anything to the average consumer. Most people don't know if 2g whole grain is beneficial or not. That's why it is essential to have an eye-catching graphic symbol such as the whole grain stamp," she said.
Currently 400 products in the US carry the WGC's whole grain stamp, which first became available at the end of January, soon after the Publication of the USDA's Dietary Guidelines, which recommends the consumption of at least three servings of whole grain foods per day.
According to Harriman, a number of food companies are also independently making whole grain content claims on their products.
"The claims are already being made. It's really a matter of getting the FDA's blessing now," she said.
However, an FDA spokesperson pointed out that "companies that are making statements about whole grains should be sure that the wording they choose is in compliance with FDA regulations."
"Because FDA does not pre-approve product labels it is possible that some companies are making statements or claims that do not comply with the laws and regulations FDA enforces. Should FDA become aware of a product that is not in compliance with these laws and regulations, the manufacturer may be subject to regulatory action."