By Laura Aiken
Canada’s grain industry has a new national voice, and it’s been working
to sing itself into the spotlight with all the gusto of Celine Dion.
Canada’s grain industry has a new national voice, and it’s been working to sing itself into the spotlight with all the gusto of Celine Dion. The Healthy Grains Institute is a non-profit, scientifically driven organization with the mandate of delivering credible, authoritative, positive messaging on the value of grains in the human diet.
|The HGI promotes new and upcoming science on the health benefits of grain and eating habits over time, highlighting that whole grains are associated with lowering rates of heart disease and cancer, reducing abdominal obesity and inflammation, as well as having a good impact on brain health.
The HGI was born in response. Not content to take another bottom-line bruiser like the Atkins diet, the major players in Canada’s bread industry rallied behind the creation of a national body to respond to the allegations made in Wheat Belly and the ensuing anti-wheat sentiment. The organization officially took flight Nov. 27, 2012, and is governed by a board of directors that comes from the for-profit and non-profit sectors. The governing board is guided by a scientific advisory board. Defending attacks on wheat is just part of its mandate; its broader activity is to act as a voice that talks to Canadians about the health benefits of grains.
Christine Lowry, M.Sc. and RD, is the nutrition and policy advisor for the HGI. The institute’s mission is bigger than a branded message, she says, because it was recognized by industry that the information should be unbiased, ethically sound and delivered by a credible body, not private business. A goal was also set to unite all the stakeholders, from field to fork, in the chain of growers, millers, handlers and everyone else invested in delivering an accurate message about grains.
“There’s been a huge void not having a national body that provides information in a way the media, and stakeholders – dietitians, cardiologists, fitness leaders, bloggers – can use. All these people all looking for this [information], and that defined the niche.”
Previously, smaller grains organizations across the country have done some consumer communications, but Lowry says when she travels and speaks she often hears these smaller bodies express gratitude for the HGI’s existence because they don’t have the money to do what a national body is capable of.
“It’s almost like sowing that thread across Canada and having them support us so we can centralize the message and the resources for those who have an interest.”
The HGI is modeled after the Grain Foods Foundation (GFF) in the U.S., which was formed in 2004. Having a sister-like organization has been fortunate for the HGI, says Lowry, as its leaders can learn from its older southern friend. She has met with the GFF, and the two bodies intend to work closely together. They even share one scientific advisor and, of course, a similar set of objectives and activities.
What does the HGI do all day?
The HGI’s primary activity in its infancy has been establishing the messaging and tools to deliver its communication. The HGI is working on and sharing its messaging work with the GFF, says Lowry, with the idea being to take the best of each other’s work (although the HGI is in the very early stages of this). Currently, the HGI is focused on finalizing a wheat/grain infographic and getting an e-news up and running.
Lowry recently completed a stretch of intensive interviewing with stakeholders, including the advisory board, dietitians and other leaders in the health and medical community. The purpose was to get a solid understanding of what their views are concerning wheat, gluten and weight. From there, Lowry says the institute will synthesize and further refine the messaging.
Part of the communication strategy is also hitting the right tone for delivering science-based information. The HGI is seeking to ensure its communications strike a chord with consumers.
“We know that boring facts aren’t motivating. The information needs to be scientifically sound, but emotionally engaging so it’s more consumer focused,” says Lowry.
The scientific advisory board plays a key role in making sure the facts are scientifically sound. It’s a council of three: Harvey Anderson is a professor in the departments of nutritional sciences and physiology and the department physiology director for the program in food safety, nutrition and regulatory affairs at the University of Toronto. Ravindra (Ravi) Chibbar is a professor and Canada research chair of crop quality for the department of plant sciences at the University of Saskatchewan. Julie Miller Jones, is a professor, nutritionist, scholar and professor emeritus of foods and nutrition at St. Catherine University in Saint Paul, Mich. Each member holds an esteemed biography in his or her respected fields.
For the first 18 months, the scientific advisory board focused on vetting all of the messaging the HGI was putting together. In terms of new research, the institute is currently reviewing two small proposals that have come its way. Lowry says that if they are sound proposals she will recommend they be done in concert with the GFF who has a much stronger financial base at this stage. The GFF is currently doing a systematic review of research on wheat that will pull together and summarize findings across the existing pool of research.
As the institute has forged ahead, it’s slowly expanded its circle of influential associates. Lowry notes that Nancy Ames at the University of Manitoba and Richardson Centre contacted the HGI over the allegation that wheat has changed over the years because she wants to help them answer that question. Carol Greenwood and Dr. John Davignon are affiliates who advise the scientific advisory council. Three registered dietitians – Kim Arrey, Cara Rosenbloom, and Gloria Tsang – have their faces and credentials on board.
Lowry is excited to be bringing together all the science and medical researchers who have expressed interest in being associated with the HGI and are aware of it. For a young organization, these are great victories towards long-term success.
Rolling up their sleeves for the road ahead
The HGI has its work cut out for it. Nutrition is complicated, and it’s a silver bullet world. Lowry has seen eggs and beef take a beating, and feels that eventually the wheat bashing will pass too. People prefer the simplicity of being told one prescriptive thing to do, says Lowry, and that’s part of the reason for the success of books like Wheat Belly. People also gravitate towards anecdotal evidence.
“In Edmonton someone mentioned, ‘Well, my hairdresser has gone gluten-free and keeps telling everyone how much healthier it is’. In a community the hairdresser talks to everyone and knows everyone’s personal life, so what we’ll do is give you those key sound bites that make her think twice,” explains Lowry. “People think of gluten-free like smoke-free or fat-free: because it’s free it must be better. How do we develop a counter to that when that’s the way everyone is moving?
Because it rests on the laurels of its scientific ethics, the HGI won’t be able to offer a one-stop shop solution to weight loss or total wellness, but it will be able to focus on educating in ways that get consumer attention and bring balance to the overly simplistic arguments currently in circulation. The HGI can promote new and upcoming science on the health benefits of grain and eating habits over time, highlighting that whole grains are associated with lowering rates of heart disease and cancer, reducing abdominal obesity and inflammation, as well as having a good impact on brain health.
“Nutrition has so many different tenets in it, and it’s never a black and white situation,” says Lowry. “What I can tell you is that eating patterns are much more important than individual foods. It is the eating pattern over the long term that has the benefit. Eating one food isn’t going to save you and removing a food group isn’t going to save you. It’s the eating pattern, and that’s what we have to teach people, but unfortunately no one is out there teaching nutrition. It’s not in the classroom, and the government doesn’t take responsibility, so it becomes what I hear from my friends, what I read on the Internet and what’s out there on the Twitterverse.”
The Twitterverse can work for all sides. Lowry says she felt great about the impact of her previous three speaking engagements because of the number of people in the audience tweeting the facts she was delivering. This helps achieve an HGI goal of bringing balance and perspective to the conversation.
With a clear strategy for moving ahead, Lowry says growing the membership is very important. The HGI is financially backed by industry partners who helped get the organization off the ground: the BAC, the Canadian National Millers Association, Canada Bread, Weston Bakeries, Grain Growers of Canada, the Alberta Wheat Commission and Grain Farmers of Ontario. The organization isn’t receiving any government funding yet so it’s relying on growing its base of supporting members.
The structure is set up to allow for different membership fees and benefits to finance all different sizes of businesses. It is designed to be accessible to small independent retailers, too.
Bakers can access the HGI’s resources at www.healthygrains.ca. There are a number of fact sheets and studies available. No matter where your business is invested, it’s imperative to understand both sides of the story.