Friday, February 22, 2008

Late Night at The Table with The Whole Grains Council

Hello everyone! I had the amazing opportunity to interview one of the most influential leaders of the whole wheat movement in Northern America this week. Cynthia Harriman the Director of Food and Nutrition Strategies for Oldways and The Whole Grains Council sat down with us this week and shared some of her knowledge and thoughts about whole grains:

Tablebread: Welcome Cynthia! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your position, and your organization?

Thanks Lewis. The Whole Grains Council (WGC) is an Oldways’ educational program helping consumers achieve better health by increasing their consumption of quick, easy, and delicious whole grains.

The WGC’s many initiatives help individuals and families to find whole grain foods and to understand their health benefits; help the media to write accurate, compelling stories about whole grains; and help manufacturers to create a wide variety of appealing whole grain products.

The WGC was originated in 2003 by Oldways, the non-profit food issues think tank that creates and organizes a wide variety of programs and materials about healthy eating, drinking and lifestyles, and the traditional pleasures of the table. Its educational programs are for consumers, scientists, the food industry, health professionals, chefs, journalists and policy makers. You can learn more about the Whole Grains Council at

I’m Director of Food and Nutrition Strategies for Oldways and the WGC – a job I love because it lets me spend my time thinking up innovative ways to communicate on health issues with both consumers and manufacturers.

TB: When did you first see major national attention turn towards whole grains?

This was one of those “perfect storm” things, where several elements came together at the same time, about the beginning of 2005. At that point we had seen the worst excesses of low-carb mania come and go, which ironically helped. Both the Atkins diet and South Beach pretty much said, “Avoid carbs, but if one should cross your lips, at least make sure it’s a whole grain.” Somehow (for once!) we kept the baby and threw out the bath water. When the low-carb tide subsided, a certain level of knowledge about whole grains survived above the high-water mark.

Then in January 2005 the new Dietary Guidelines were released by our government, with the first-ever recommendation to “make half your grains whole” – recommending at least three servings a day of whole grains. A week later we introduced the Whole Grain Stamp, which we’d already been developing for over a year. Interestingly, many manufacturers tell us that the low-carb fad taught them a lot about different options for making grain foods, and left them ready to capitalize on the new interest in whole grains. After all, if you can formulate a low-carb bread or muffin so it’s at all palatable, creating one from real whole grains seems easy afterwards!

TB: The Whole Grains Council won the 2006 Packaging Innovation of the Year for the Whole Grain Stamp and the 100% Whole Grain Stamp. Can you give us an idea of the thought that went behind this and what kind of impact the introduction of the Stamp has had on introducing whole grains into the American diet?

We worked on the Whole Grain Stamp for almost a year and a half before its January 2005 introduction. In its finished form it seems so simple and logical that that may be hard to believe, but starting from scratch we had to answer questions such as, Would the Stamp signify a certain percentage of whole grain, or a certain amount? What would our process be for verifying compliance? What would the graphic look like? And of course we had to test it with consumers, and get legal and regulatory opinions and so on and so on.

Our big goal — which we achieved — was to develop a way for consumers and manufactures to get “partial credit” for whole grains. Before the advent of the Stamp, only products that were 100% whole grain or very close to it could say anything on their packaging. But just as most people don’t switch from whole milk directly to skim – they adjust their palate slowly, with 2% milk then 1% – people need a way to find whole grains at a range of levels, while their palates adjust to the fuller, nuttier taste of whole grains. And manufacturers can similarly learn as they go, adding more and more whole grain to their most popular products and getting credit for each step.

The result? Whole grain product introductions and sales are up markedly. You can buy whole grain English muffins in any grocery, where they used to just be at the health food store. People even know how to pronounce quinoa! We’ve come a long way. In good part, this is because the Whole Grain Stamp is now on about 1,700 products.

TB: We see that The Whole Grains Council has worked to get the Stamp on Canadian products. Do you see The Whole Grains Council as a possible world wide institution?

In February 2008 we just announced a two-fold expansion of the Whole Grain Stamp. We now have a bilingual version of the Stamp for use in Canada, and a new Whole Grain Menu Symbol for use in restaurants and foodservice. Already, six of our members are based in Europe, and there’s interest from them in using the Stamp on their products overseas as well as in North America. We’re exploring regulatory questions and looking into the possibility of a universal international version of the Whole Grain Stamp, as the interest is definitely there – and the health benefits of whole grains are the same worldwide!

TB: What advice do you have for everyone reading my blog?

I would love to invite everyone to visit our website at, where you can learn what a whole grain is, what the health benefits of whole grains are, how to find them in stores and in restaurants, and so much more.

There are so many quick, easy, delicious whole grain foods available today that there’s something for every taste. When whole grains taste good and they’re good for you, why would you not go for it?

TB: Here are some further sources of whole grain baking and cooking:

How are you adding whole grains into your life? Do you have a special recipe that you use to sneak whole grains into your family? Stop by and leave a comment and share with us how you are using whole grains in your diet!


Mansi Desai said...

that's a nice post for a worthy cause Lewis!

Tablebread said...

Mansi - Thanks! I am always trying to get more whole grains into my family's diet and I wanted to draw more attention to how important that is. I am glad you enjoyed it!

Red Icculus said...

When I was a child, my mom was Betty Crocker, incarnate. She would always bake substantial whole grain bread a few times a week. One time, at a large dinner with family, someone brought Wonderbread. Being a child presented with an inferior substitute for what I was used to, I balled it up and threw it. I was a foodie even as a kid.

Tablebread said...

Red - You may start a new revolution! THROW OUT YOUR INFERIOR BREAD!!! I will say in defense of the exact brand Wonderbread, they actually started the hole 'enriched' bread movement and increased the vitamin intake of kids everywhere. So we at least have to give them that :)

Julie said...

Excellent article, Lewis! When my doc recommended the South Beach diet, it was partly because it advocated whole grains after the initial two-week induction period. I'm glad the Council's stamp is being used more widely! Just like with the Fair Trade stamp, the Whole Grain stamp can be wielded proudly by products meeting the standard.

My whole grain consumption is due in large part to discovering Bob's Red Mill Whole Grain Pastry Flour! Good grief, I should like a commercial. =P

Tablebread said...

Thanks for the link Julie! I have been getting my whole wheat pastry flour from Whole Foods. Before that I couldn't find it anywhere. That will be one of those conveniences I am going to miss in Italy :*( but I think I can live with that!

BumbleVee said...

Even for my first try at bread, I just couldn't bring myself to do white bread... haven't eaten that for such a long time that ... well, it has a been a very long time!

I am using half whole wheat flour in it and we love it.... too much...hahha.... I am eating more bread than ever and I have always loved bread .... thank god my foot is better and I can use my treadmill again...hahahhah

Tablebread said...

bumblevee - You have been converted to the dark side! Welcome to the wonderful world of fresh bread. It's addictive isn't it? :)

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