South Africans unaware of wholegrain benefits, study finds

Whole grains are known for their significant role in promoting health and nutrition. Picture: Unsplash/ Priscilla Du Preez

Whole grains are known for their significant role in promoting health and nutrition. Picture: Unsplash/ Priscilla Du Preez

Published Sep 12, 2023


An estimated 820 million people (or 11% of the current world population) are undernourished in terms of energy intake, and 1.3 billion people (17%) suffer from micronutrient deficiencies.

Rapid increases in food prices are arguably to blame for the affected livelihoods of millions of people.

The Sustainable Shifts to Healthy Diets and Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa study claims that increased urbanisation and rising disposable incomes support a quick transformation in lifestyle and economy in sub-Saharan Africa.

The sub-Saharan Africa population is consequently becoming more and more susceptible to the dual burden of malnutrition and obesity.

Whole grains play an important role in health and nutrition, and many countries’ food-based dietary guidelines recommend that individuals should increase their wholegrain intake.

But do South Africans know how to choose products with whole grains and are they aware of the benefits?

Whole grains are known for their significant role in promoting health and nutrition. However, the awareness among South Africans about choosing wholegrain products and their associated benefits remains a concern.

According to a 2022 study on dietitians’ attitudes and understanding of the promotion of whole grains, grains, and ultra-processed foods, there is evidence that consumers have difficulty correctly interpreting nutrition information, especially when it comes to bread options.

This reinforces the need for dietitians to support the clear labelling of products and the clear provision of nutrition information, especially in public health and food industry positions.

Whole grains consist of the entire grain seed, including the bran, germ, and endosperm. As a result, they retain essential nutrients such as fibre, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Incorporating whole grains into one’s diet has been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancer.

Numerous countries’ food-based dietary guidelines encourage individuals to increase their whole grain intake, recognising their significant health benefits.

Choosing whole grains

Examples of whole grains and wholegrain foods include: barley, bulgur, also called cracked wheat, farro, millet, quinoa, black rice, brown rice oats, popcorn, wholewheat flour, wholegrain breakfast cereals, wholewheat bread, pasta or crackers.

Breakfast is often touted as the most important meal of the day due to its nutritional and energy-boosting properties.

However, a recent study conducted by PepsiCo South Africa and the University of Pretoria has uncovered a concerning lack of awareness among South African consumers regarding the benefits of wholegrain foods in their breakfast choices.

Wholegrain options, such as BOKOMO oats, Weet-bix, and ProNutro, offer higher levels of essential nutrients like protein, dietary fibre, micronutrients and bioactives, compared to their refined counterparts.

The study titled, “South African Consumers’ Knowledge, Opinions, and Awareness of Whole Grains and Their Health Benefits”, was to understand consumers’ understanding and behaviours surrounding whole grains.

Surprisingly, the research found that while 67% of respondents believed they were consuming enough whole grains, the majority (62%) actually underestimated the recommended daily intake.

The lack of published data on wholegrain consumption in South Africa, coupled with limited dietary surveillance surveys, has made it challenging to track wholegrain trends and patterns among consumers.

To address this gap, the study collected data from 1 000 South African consumers, ensuring a representative sample in terms of socio-economic status, race, gender, and age (18–64 years).

The findings revealed that 64% of respondents were confident in their knowledge of whole grains. However, alarming results showed that 60% of participants selected incorrect definitions of whole grains.

While most correctly identified common cereals as whole grains, only a maximum of 50% accurately identified other wholegrain foods like brown rice, quinoa, or bread made from wholewheat flour.

Moreover, the study highlighted a general lack of knowledge among respondents regarding the attributes of wholegrain foods and their associated health benefits.

“While it is encouraging to see a good percentage of South Africans are aware of incorporating whole grains into their diets in general, the level of knowledge as to whether specific food products contain wholegrain ingredients and the quantities required for optimal health, is low,” explained Yulia Berezhnaya, R&D Life Sciences senior principal scientist at PepsiCo SA.

“It requires multi-stakeholder collaboration to take place to ensure meaningful change. We need to ensure consistency of definitions used in labelling regulation and dietary recommendations.

“As a food manufacturer, our task is to develop tasty products that are affordable and accessible to consumers.”

As a result of these findings, education and awareness campaigns are needed to ensure South Africans make informed choices when it comes to incorporating whole grains into their daily diets.

Individuals must understand the benefits of whole grains to make informed breakfast choices for better nutrition and overall health.