The potential nutritional benefits of nutrient-rich cereals such as maize and wheat as part of a balanced and healthy diet are often ‘overlooked or undervalued’, according to a new paper published on 18 September in Food Policy (1).
“Most whole-grain cereals provide differing amounts of proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins, in addition to being important sources of dietary energy,” said Jason Donovan, a senior economist at the CGIAR International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a non-profit research organisation that aims to foster more productive, sustainable maize and wheat farming.
The authors argue that research agendas should focus more on the nutritional attributes of grains which have the potential to address the burden of undernutrition, micronutrient malnutrition, overweight/obesity and non-communicable diseases.
They note two main underlying issues with current agri-nutrition research and dietary guidance. Despite varying nutritional values, cereals are often indiscriminately grouped under the blanket term ‘staples’. Second, cereals are often considered for their energy values alone, while other important nutritional benefits are ignored. For example, the benefits of bioactive components in dietary fibre, such as carotenoids, flavonoids, and polyphenols.
Owing to modern crop breeding technologies, maize and wheat can also be further fortified with additional vitamins and minerals to help curb global nutritional deficiencies. Moreover, improvements in agricultural techniques, genetic engineering, storage, and food safety methods can also contribute to increased productivity.
Maximising the benefits of cereal-based foods could potentially reduce the triple burden of both under- and over-nutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and the growing global problem of non-communicable diseases.
Co-author Olaf Erenstein, director of CIMMYT’s socioeconomics program explained: “Through increasing the availability of, and access to, healthy foods derived from cereals, we can better address the growing triple burden of malnutrition that many countries are facing”.
“To feed the world within planetary boundaries, current intakes of whole-grain foods should more than double, and address tricky issues like the current over-processing, to make the most of the nutrition potential of maize and wheat”.
However, processing cereals can substantially reduce their nutritional benefits as many essential vitamins and minerals are lost and highly processed foods can lead to overeating, poor health, and a considerably shortened lifespan. Ultra-processed foods often contain fewer nutrients than unprocessed foods and larger quantities of sugar, salt, saturated fat, and food additives – all of which are associated with an increased risk for chronic diseases and even cancer.
But whereas some carbohydrates can have negative effects that contribute to diabetes and obesity, carbohydrates found in the dietary fibres of cereals are fermented in the large intestine and can have enormously positive metabolic and health effects.
“If we are to end hunger by delivering healthy, diverse and nutritional diets in the next decade, we need a broader and more nuanced understanding of the nutritional and health-promoting value of diverse foods, including cereals”, said co-author Prof Nigel Poole of International Development at SOAS University, London.
“Cereals and so-called ‘nutrient-rich’ foods are complementary in agri-nutrition, both of which require additional research, resources and attention so that one does not replace the other”.
(1) Poole, N., Donovan, J., and Erenstein, O. Agri-nutrition research: Revisiting the contribution of maize and wheat to human nutrition and health. Food Policy (2020). DOI: 10.1016/j.foodpol.2020.101976