The new health claims regulation has rekindled interest in exploring the benefits of wholegrains, said consultant Prof David Richardson, but there is a need for action in Europe to ensure grains do not miss out in the implementation process.
Prof Richardson of DPR Nutrition was a guest speaker the closing plenary session at last week's Cereals and Europe conference in Montpellier, France, held by the AACCI (American Association of Cereal Chemists International).
He set out an overview of the new legislation and the challenges it poses for science and industry.
Wholegrains are recognized as a source of many nutrients and dietary fiber, and health claims have previously been approved in several markets, such as the UK, the US and Sweden - notably relating to wholegrain consumption and a healthy heart.
They have also been associated with cancer risk reduction, bowel health, managing blood sugar and diabetes risk reduction and weight management.
Some multi-disciplinary projects on grains and health benefits are already underway, such as the HEALTHGRAIN project, which falls under the EU's sixth framework program on food quality and safety activity.
Initiated in 2005 and set to run until May 2010, the project aims to improve the well-being and reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome related diseases in Europe by increasing the intake of protective compounds in wholegrains or their fractions.
Although Prof Richardson praised this initiative, in which he is a participant, the new legislation it will have a major impact on research and product innovation.
In summary, he said that there are four main groups of claims covered. The first, included in the annex, relates to nutrient content; the second (article 13.1) to generally accepted science; the third (article 13.5) to new science and where intellectual property rights are at stake; and the fourth to disease risk reduction in children.
Nutrient profiles are currently causing many in industry and academia to scratch their heads, particularly since there is a short time frame - January 2009 - to put a system up and running. The question remains as to whether nutrient profiles will relate just to fats, sugar and salt, or whether other elements like proteins, or even omega-3 will come into play.
The current focus is on drawing up positive lists of foods and components for which the science is generally accepted.
Member states have until January 2008 to compile and submit their proposed lists to EFSA, and the authority then has until January 2010, three years after the legislation came into force, to issue the definitive list.
In fact, Prof Richardson said that the industry is coordinating a response across Europe, with generic lists being collating by industry groups the CIAA, EHPM, ERNA.
"The EC is looking on benevolently," said Prof Richardson.
But he advised companies to find out where Member States are up to with their lists, what is on them, and consider what benefit these will be to the industry.
"If food is not on the positive list by 2010 it will have to work very hard to get it on the list to be able to make a claim in the future."
As for emerging science and claims for which a certain company wants intellectual property rights, this is even more of an unknown quantity since it is not yet clear how much science and what kind of science will be needed by EFSA, which will have the not inconsiderably task in weighing all of this up.
Submissions guidelines are expected to be issued by July; it is expected that EFSA may look at points such as persuasiveness of studies, consistency of results, magnitude of effect and strength of association.
However for many food components on the wish list, the evidence is smaller scale - and for new studies to show this off they may need to be designed in a certain way.
With regard to the claims for disease risk reduction in children - an area that has never before been included in European legislation and is subject to the full, yet to be expounded authorization procedure - these may related to growth, development and bodily functions; physical and behavioral effects; and slimming, weight control and satiety.
These, said Prof Richardson, are all benefits that are relevant to cereals.
Even though the term "well understood by the average consume", which is bandied in the legislation, is not well defined, there is strong evidence that health claims can act as a major driver to sales of a food product or category.
For instance oats, which have a JCHI claim in the UK linking consumption to reduced blood cholesterol levels, are one of the fastest growing categories in that country.
But health claims have a bearing not just on industry in Europe, but on a wider scale too.
It will affect trade with other economic blocks, such as the ASEAN countries, and could have a bearing on Codex Alimentarius guidelines, said Prof Richardson.
"There is a global demand in functional food science," he said.
"Stakeholders must work together to develop practical applications. This is a global exercise, and Europe has to maintain its position."