On the threshold of a new growing emphasis to increase whole grain consumption to help fight disease in the U.S., General Mills announced that it will become the first leading food manufacturer to make all of its Big G breakfast cereals with whole grain.
"Eating more whole grain could have a significant impact on the overall health of Americans," said Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "The science shows a strong connection between whole grain and a reduced risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity, which are the biggest preventable killers in the United States."
"This improvement by General Mills will benefit Americans and could signal the most comprehensive improvement in the nation's food supply since the government began mandatory fortification of grains in the 1940s," Kessler said.
The entire General Mills portfolio of Big G breakfast cereals will now be either a "Good" or "Excellent" source of whole grain. Long-time whole grain cereals such as Cheerios, Wheaties, Total and Wheat Chex were already "Excellent" sources of whole grain and were not changed.
General Mills claims to have increased the whole grain content of many of its cereals while matching or improving taste across the board. This improvement includes such popular brands as Trix, Golden Grahams, Lucky Charms and Rice Chex.
General Mills conducted extensive taste tests across the country with more than 9,000 people. The new whole grain cereals were liked just as much or even better than the previous cereal recipes.
In a national survey, 91% of Americans say they want more whole grain foods in their diet, but as a nation, Americans are not getting enough. The reality is that nine out of 10 people in the U.S. do not eat the minimum recommended daily amount of whole grain.
"There seems to be a lot of confusion as to which foods really deliver whole grain," said Susan J. Crockett, senior director of the Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, the nutrition research arm of General Mills.
To help consumers identify which ready-to-eat cereals are made with whole grain, General Mills also unveiled new packaging with bold, attention-getting "Whole Grain" labeling to be on every cereal box. Americans can expect to begin seeing this new packaging starting within the next few weeks and continuing on into the new year, depending on the brand.
General Mills claims this improvement will single-handedly increase by more than 1.5 billion the number of whole grain servings per year for Americans -- without additional calories -- according to Crockett.
"Putting all of our cereals together, General Mills will provide Americans with 26 million servings of whole grain per day," Crockett said. "This will help close the gap in whole grain consumption in the United States."
Currently, only 3% of the total calories consumed annually in the U.S. come from whole grain. Adults consume only one serving a day on average -- and children consume even less -- though the recommendation from public health officials is at least three servings of whole grain foods per day.
Increasing the amount of whole grain in breakfast cereals could help provide a turnaround for this nutritional deficit, according to Crockett. According to the Gallup study "Consumer Attitudes and Behaviors Concerning Breakfast," about 93% of American households eat cereal.
"Because breakfast cereal is universally enjoyed in the U.S., this improvement in Big G cereals creates an easy, great tasting way for adults and children to get more whole grain into their diet," Crockett said.
MORE WHOLE GRAIN COULD SAVE LIVES
Meir Stampfer, professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition, serves as the chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the Harvard University School of Public Health. He has studied health issues for more than 20 years and stresses the need for more whole grain in the daily diet.
"The evidence is compelling that diets rich in whole grain foods have a protective effect against several forms of cancer and heart disease," said Stampfer, who has published numerous studies on the health benefits of whole grains.
"Like fruits and vegetables, whole grain foods contain a powerful package of naturally occurring antioxidants, phyto-nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein, making them a key component of a healthy diet to reduce the risk for preventable diseases," Stampfer said.
"By increasing whole grain consumption from the current one serving a day to three or more a day as recommended, we can expect to prevent a substantial number of premature deaths every year," Stampfer said.
IT'S NOT JUST THE FIBER; IT'S THE WHOLE GRAIN
"This disease-preventing capability is not solely due to the dietary fiber found in whole grains," said David R. Jacobs, Jr. of the University of Minnesota Department of Epidemiology. "Research suggests it is all of the components of the whole grain that appear to act together to provide protective effects."
"People want healthy options, but they will not sacrifice on taste," Jacobs said. "We know people should eat more whole grain foods. I think if you can provide the health benefits of whole grain along with great taste, then that should go a long way toward introducing more Americans to whole grain, and I would not be surprised if General Mills has a significant marketplace advantage because of it."
HUGE COMMITMENT FOR CEREAL GIANT GENERAL MILLS
"Consumers are looking for food products that can be part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle," said General Mills chairman and CEO Steve Sanger. "This innovation brings important health news to the cereal aisle. Delivering whole grain across our entire Big G cereal portfolio will benefit the people who love our cereals and should be good for the entire cereal category."
"This is a great example of a food manufacturer using its know-how for the benefit of the people in this country," said Kessler. "If we can help make it easier for people to eat their three servings of whole grain per day, then we will meet a key health objective of the U.S. government, and we could see a reduction in serious preventable diseases."
With this move, General Mills is (along with federal policymakers and several national health organizations) placing a greater emphasis on whole grain consumption as a public health priority. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are expected to expand the role for whole grains in the updated U.S. Dietary Guidelines, due to be officially announced in January 2005.
The American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, National Institutes of Health and the American Society for Clinical Nutrition each support the recommendation to increase whole grain in the daily diet. The organizations recognize that increasing the consumption of whole grain foods can help protect against heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes.
"General Mills is committed to using packaging, advertising and other communication tools to greatly elevate the visibility of whole grain foods in America," said Crockett. "You're going to be hearing a lot about whole grain in the coming months, and General Mills hopes to help you wake up to the benefits of whole grains."