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Cereals – current and emerging nutritional issues


Dr Joanne Lunn, Senior Nutrition Scientist, British Nutrition Foundation, High Holborn House, 52-54 High Holborn, London WC1V 6RQ, UK.


Summary  Cereals are staple foods, providing an important source of micro- and macronutrients in both developed and developing countries. Specifically, cereal products are an important source of energy, carbohydrate, protein and fibre, as well as containing a range of micronutrients such as vitamin E, some of the B vitamins, magnesium and zinc. But it seems that their role in promoting good health goes beyond merely the provision of nutrients; there is much evidence to suggest that regular consumption of cereal products, specifically whole grains, may have a role in the prevention of chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, diabetes and colorectal cancer. Additionally, many cereal products promote feelings of satiety, and the regular consumption of cereal-based products at mealtimes appear to be key drivers of healthier dietary patterns.

In the past, several misconceptions have existed among the public with regard to cereal products. Firstly, many more people believe they have a food intolerance or allergy to these foods than evidence would suggest, and secondly, cereals are seen by some as ‘fattening’. The public should not be encouraged to cut out whole food groups unnecessarily and, as cereals and cereal products provide a range of macro- and micronutrients and fibre, eliminating these foods without appropriate support and advice from a registered dietitian or other health professional could lead to problems in the long term. Many consumers also seem to be confused by the concept of ‘whole grain’, misinterpreting advice and clearly not achieving dietary recommendations.

However, changing consumer attitudes, along with advancements in agricultural processes and food technology, have influenced the functionality of cereal products in the diet, and increasingly, claims are being made to promote cereal consumption specifically for the benefit of health. A new regulation provides a legal standard for nutrition and health claims that applies across the European Union. Eventually, a list of approved claims will be published that can be used on foods, provided the product in question contains enough of the nutrient to have a health benefit and its nutrient profile is deemed healthy enough to support a claim. This may have a significant impact on future consumer perceptions of the health benefits of a diet based on cereal foods.