Grains for Health Foundation created; focus on health-related basic science

by Josh Sosland
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ST. PAUL, MINN. — Over the past several years, the wheat foods industry has come together through numerous groups to help communicate the benefits and counter criticisms of grain-based foods. Now a new organization has been established to help strengthen the scientific underpinning of those communications efforts.

The Grains for Health Foundation has been created as a collaborative group with a principal focus on basic scientific research aimed at, among other objectives, elucidating the role by which grains, grain components and whole grains may reduce chronic disease while focusing research and technology on improving public health.

"We are redesigning the food supply chain by facilitating the development, delivery and consumption of grain-based foods that promote a balanced body weight, reduce chronic disease and curb health care costs," the group said.

At an initial meeting Feb. 23-24 wasa group of 22. Present were representatives of several prominent grain-based foods companies, including Cargill, ConAgra Foods, Inc., and Kellogg Co.; universities, including Kansas State, Purdue, Cornell and the University of Minnesota; associations, including The American Association of Cereal Chemists International and the Wheat Foods Council; and government, including the Agriculture Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Membership in the foundation will be open to these categories of groups.

The meeting, conducted at A.A.C.C.I. headquarters in St. Paul, was the first of the group’s board of directors and scientific advisory council. Gary Fulcher, a professor and department head at the University of Manitoba, was elected chairman of the board.

Spearheading the initiative and serving as president and chief executive officer will be Len Marquart, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Minnesota, St. Paul. Mr. Marquart, who has used time on sabbatical from the university to help organize the new foundation, said the creation of the group represents the culmination of an effort that began six years ago to foster collaboration between business, academia and government toward issues related to health and grain-based foods.

"We want to pull the different sectors together from the perspective of figuring out how to prioritize, focus and leverage research dollars around key issues related to grain-based foods," Mr. Marquart said.

He described the objectives as business-based but altruistically focused on enhancing public health.

Mr. Marquart personally has experience within two of the three collaborative legs that will form the Grains for Health Foundation. In addition to his work in academia, he spent eight years as a nutrition technical specialist and senior scientist at General Mills, Inc.

Administrative services support for the G.H.F. will be provided by the A.A.C.C.I.

Elaborating on the basic research, Mr. Marquart said the group would focus principally, but not exclusively, on issues related to whole grains and fiber. The objective will be to fill a void in the current knowledge base associated with grain-based foods. Ultimately, this information will help other grain-based foods groups with their communications to the public about the healthfulness of the industry’s products, he said. While outside communication is a principal activity of several industry organizations, media focus will not be central for the G.H.F.

"We want to study, mechanistically, what is it about whole grains and dietary fiber that would demonstrate that these types of grain ingredients would be beneficial for human health," he said. "We have associations based on epidemiological data, but we don’t have a clue in terms of the basic mechanisms in terms of why whole grains and fiber may be good for human health.

"We need to get to the nitty gritty of why. That will provide business with additional information as to why whole grains and fiber may improve human health. If there is a clear-cut answer, or if we get closer to such an answer, it would help to clarify communication."

In coming weeks and months, the G.H.F. will explore potential issues for study. For example, one possible topic may be researching the ideal method for assessing antioxidants in grain-based foods, Mr. Marquart said.

"Instead of producing research, we want to convene experts who can identify strategies in order to examine constituents in grains and how they would relate to human health," he said. "We will be working with A.A.C.C.I. to develop a database to prioritize and leverage research dollars and eventually conduct research through collaborative efforts."

While the principal focus of the G.H.F. will be on basic research, some emphasis will be given toward school meals, specifically gradually incorporating grain-based foods in schools that are higher in whole grains and dietary fiber and lower in excess calories, fat and sodium. Additionally, attention will be given to sustainable training — training young scientists, business and health professionals to collaborate in sustainable grain-based, multi-disciplinary research projects that promote public health.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Milling and Baking News, March 10, 2009, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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