Exploiting whole grain to improve health

September 30, 2005

Brussels, 29 Sep 2005

The EU-funded research project HEALTHGRAIN is to identify new sources of nutritionally enhanced grain, as well as to develop methods for producing new, competitive, grain foods that are good for health and more appealing to consumers.

The project is building on results from recent studies that have revealed how wholegrain foods can have a protective effect against heart disease, strokes and diabetes. But unfortunately, bread is currently mostly baked from refined flour, devoid of the nutrients and protective factors present in the outer layers of grains. HEALTHGRAIN is part of a strategy by the European Union to increase food safety and quality, with the aim of improving well-being and reducing the risk of metabolic syndrome related diseases in Europe. This is to be done by increasing the average European citizen's intake of protective wholegrains.

HEALTHGRAIN, which stands for 'exploiting bioactivity of European cereal grains for improved nutrition and health benefits', is an integrated project (IP) under the food quality and safety priority of the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). Some 43 partner organisations from 15 European countries and different disciplines, coordinated by Professor Kaisa Poutanen from the Finnish Technical Research Centre (VTT), will carry out the research to establish the variation, process-induced changes and human metabolism of bioactive compounds in the major European bread grains, and to reveal the physiological mechanisms underlying their significance in prevention of metabolic syndrome and related diseases. HEALTHGRAIN, a five year project that started in June 2005, has a total budget of 16 million euro of which 10.8 million euro is provided by the FP6.

Professor Poutanen explains: 'We will be working on gaining a better understanding of the various compound levels in grains and their localisation. This will allow us to develop milling techniques which remove only certain layers from the grain in order to maintain the parts which carry the most health benefits.'

HEALTHGRAIN will examine the variation, process-induced changes and human metabolism of bioactive compounds in wheat and rye, the two major European bread grains. The project aims to reveal the physiological mechanisms underlying the significance of bioactive compounds in the prevention of metabolic syndrome and related diseases. The target bioactive compounds are vitamins (folate, tocols, choline, etc.), phytochemicals (lignans, sterols, alkylresorcinols, phenolic acids) and indigestible carbohydrates. Cereal food structure will be studied in relation to digestibility.

Moreover, the project will also carry out consumer studies in order to gain an understanding of consumer expectations regarding healthy cereal foods. The project aims to produce new nutritionally enhanced wheat and rye varieties with optimal bioactive content: new sources of nutritionally enhanced grain will be identified and generated by experts in plant biotechnology, creating a toolbox of 'omics' technologies for breeding.

The project partners also wish to develop processing technologies using enzymes and starter cultures in order to combat the coarser texture and hardness of wholegrain bread in an attempt to make it more consumer-friendly. The bioavailability of the bioactive compounds will be determined, and their role together, with the glycemic response of food in reducing metabolic risk factors, will be studied.

As for dissemination, a comprehensive technology transfer and dissemination programme has been developed, including a full programme of publications, conferences, workshops and training courses. To foster interactive communication, the project has also established an Industrial Platform and Nutrition Information Network. The Industrial Platform, which already has 25 companies involved, ensures effective communication between the HEALTHGRAIN project and actors in the cereal food chain.

Europe produces about 36 per cent of the world's wheat and 94 per cent of its rye, but at a higher cost than many of its competitors. According to the project coordinators, 'the project will give European grain producers new technologies to develop globally competitive, healthier grain traits.' HEALTHGRAIN will allow the processing industry, including a large number of small-and-medium-sized enterprises, to develop new, competitive, grain foods that are good for health, including foods for individuals sensitive to particular cereal constituents, for example, gluten-free products.

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CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities
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