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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 02 December 2020

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Urgent Question, Scottish National Investment Bank, Burntisland Fabrications, Business Support, Urgent Question, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, International Whole Grain Day


International Whole Grain Day

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-23347, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on recognising the importance of whole grains on international whole grain day. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion moved,

That the Parliament acknowledges International Whole Grain Day, which takes place on 19 November 2020; notes that whole grain consumption has a positive impact on nutrition, wellbeing, sustainability and has a proven role in reducing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and cancer; understands that, according to the Scottish Government, current fibre intakes in Scotland are sitting at an average of 16 grams per day and would have to nearly double to meet the recommended dietary guideline of 30 grams per day; believes that wholegrain foods have an important part to play in helping people achieve the 30g goal for daily fibre intake; notes calls for public awareness campaigns on the benefits of whole grains, the need for an agreed definition on what should be considered whole grain foods, and for front of pack labelling schemes to recognise fibre, and considers Whole Grain Day an excellent opportunity to encourage healthier eating habits and create dialogue around how eating habits can improve lives.


Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

International whole grain day takes place on 19 November each year. Yes, we are a wee bit late with our debate—but it is still an important topic. The annual celebration seeks to raise awareness of the health and environmental benefits of whole grain. This year is only its second in existence, so it is my great pleasure to bring the topic to Parliament, I think for the first time. I thank colleagues from all political parties for their support.

I am very happy to celebrate whole grains. In fact, I regularly do, whether it is with a warm bowl of oats, which I have every single morning of my life, a crisp slice of wholegrain toast, which I have a little less regularly, and even some tasty wholegrain pasta, which might be my tea tonight.

As colleagues know, it is not hard for me to find something that I can be enthusiastic about eating—but in moderation, of course, in order to contain my circumference within appropriate bounds. Is not the point that whole grains have an important role to play in keeping us all healthy?

What is whole grain and how does it contribute to keeping us healthy? It is a grain that has not been refined—it is the entire seed of the plant. Thus intact, perhaps as nature intended, it maintains a richer nutrient profile and contains higher levels of fibre, which is particularly good for the bowels—if that is a permitted word in the debate, Presiding Officer.

The potential health impacts are significant. The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations identify low intake of whole grains as the leading dietary risk factor in the majority of WHO regions. Therefore, it is particularly worrying that Scotland’s consumption of whole grains remains low.

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson

He certainly will, and with great pleasure.

Elaine Smith

Will Stewart Stevenson join with me in assuring people who are listening to the debate that they can also have gluten-free wholegrain products?

Stewart Stevenson

Elaine Smith is absolutely correct. I know how important gluten-free food is for many people. In my previous professional life, I worked with a number of people for whom it was important, and one of my current staff members must eat gluten-free food. The member has made an important point.

The WHO talks about eating 25g to 29g of dietary fibre daily. Doing so can lead to a 15 per cent to 30 per cent decrease in cardiovascular-related mortality, incidence of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer. However, the potential health benefits go significantly beyond that. Wholegrain carbohydrates tend to be released more slowly, which makes them a great source of fuel and promotes satiety after eating, which means that one feels full for longer, which prevents one from snacking. That all helps to promote healthier eating and healthier living. What is more, grains currently account for almost 50 per cent of all the calories that are consumed globally. Therefore, consuming whole grains would involve a shift only in how we consume, not in what we consume.

In a wider context, our eating habits can play a role in our healthcare system. Improving our eating habits can lead to major relief for the system, which proves—as is often the case—that many preventative measures are in our own hands, through our diet.

Exercising regularly, eating healthily and other factors can help us to reduce stress, which is particularly important at the moment, when we are more socially isolated, and therefore under more mental pressure.

Whole grains can also help with sustainability, because wholegrain foods save water. Whole grains provide more food, produce less waste, and support better land use and healthier soil. They are healthy for us all, and for the planet.

There are answers to the question of how we can encourage people to eat more whole grains. A great example of how to do so is Denmark. My Danish nephew is headmaster of a school there, so I know that its Government has worked with industry and health organisations to promote whole grains. Those partners developed a scientific recommendation for the average daily intake of whole grains, as well as a new wholegrain food logo to signal products to consumers, which also guarantees the quality of products that are so marked.

Consumer awareness campaigns, with the involvement of athletes and celebrities, have made a significant contribution. The average wholegrain intake in Denmark has increased from 36g to 82g per day, and 50 per cent of the public meet the recommended intake, compared with 11 years ago, when only 6 per cent did so. Denmark is a country that is not dissimilar to our own, so it can be done. In Denmark, in 2009, 150 products carried the logo—today, more than 1,000 products do so. Seventy-one per cent of the Danish population recognise what the logo means, and 53 per cent look for the logo when making purchases. Other countries can teach us things that we might copy.

As part of reducing pressure on our health service, we need to innovate. Whole grains are one contributor to how we might do so, and the debate is a chance to consider how we might enhance their value. We should think about developing an accepted definition of wholegrain foods that would apply in Scotland, and we should consider our quantitative intake recommendations, public health campaigns, labelling and how we encourage people to choose whole grains.

It is worth saying that, hundreds of years ago, students would go to university with a sack of oats over their shoulder. The oats fed the student for an entire term—they did not eat anything else, because they could not afford to—and kept them going for that entire term without any great difficulty.

Presiding Officer, whole grains are where it’s at.


Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I declare an interest as a partner in the farming business of J Halcro-Johnston and Sons.

I am probably the last person who should lecture anyone about the benefits of whole grains, but the debate is important. This is not the first time that dietary issues have been raised in the chamber. They have been raised with some justification; Scotland’s diet has been a key focus of public health efforts since before the creation of the Parliament.

There is a role for Government and, particularly, for public health bodies in encouraging positive change in what we, as a society, eat. We know all too well the health outcomes of poor diet and the problems that it, along with other issues, has caused in Scotland. One significant element is the gap that exists between Scotland’s life expectancy and healthy life figures, and those in other parts of the United Kingdom.

There can be little doubt that diet and nutrition remain key challenges for our national health service and healthcare authorities, with poor nutrition causing a wide range of avoidable problems for the medical profession to fix, but progress can and must be made. That is not to ignore the significant interventions that have been made in the past. There have been many that we can look to build on, and others that we can continue to learn from.

When we speak about whole grains, my mind, in my role as my party’s economy spokesman, turns to Scotland’s more than 400,000 hectares of cereal crops, which are a key part of our agricultural sector. On our own doorstep, we can see production of a range of wholegrain foods and other sources of fibre, including fruit, vegetables, peas and beans. I mention that because people are increasingly interested in the farm-to-fork journey of their food. While meat, milk, fruit and vegetables might immediately come to mind when we are discussing locally sourced produce, it is worth considering the broader range of what we grow domestically at high quality and, potentially, with reduced food mileage.

I touched on the role of public health bodies in improving Scotland’s relationship with food. Raising fibre intake has formed a key part of the Scottish dietary goals that are promoted by Food Standards Scotland. In turn, those goals are informed by the impressive scientific advisory committee on nutrition—a body that works with health authorities across the UK. Properly, those are the kinds of goals that should flow down through public bodies and inform a range of Government work around diet.

Issues include the clarity and accessibility of dietary advice. A key problem facing public health bodies has been the vast mix of information on nutrition that is available. To many people, it can feel like a flood of apparently contradictory messages and worries that can cloud the basic messages that are so important. It is therefore important that the Government works with bodies such as the British Heart Foundation and diabetes charities that have taken significant steps in championing consumption of whole grains.

Nowhere are those messages more important than when we are dealing with children and young people. As a former shadow minister for education, I have seen some of the efforts that have been made to improve nutrition in educational settings. In many schools, the process has started in their own kitchens, and real changes have been made in the food that they offer; gone are the fizzy drinks and bleached white bread of the past. We must hope for nothing less than a generational shift. Getting habits right early can make a significant difference to a young person’s health outcomes, whereas getting things wrong can have an effect that lingers long into adulthood. We have also heard about the effect of poor nutrition on education itself; it is no secret that a balanced diet helps pupils to learn.

The evidence shows that whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet. There is still much more to be done to promote wholegrain foods, whether through public health bodies, in schools, or as a part of broader food strategy.

I welcome Stewart Stevenson’s recognition of the wholegrain food sector. It should rightly feature strongly in the Scottish Government’s nutritional advice and campaigns, and it is right that the importance of fibre intake be widely recognised.


Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and congratulate my friend and colleague Stewart Stevenson on securing it. Whole grains have been a dietary staple for the bulk of the world’s populations since the dawn of human civilisation. The history of whole grains is really interesting to read about but, in the interests of time, I cannae go intae it in too much detail right now.

I will, however, add a wee historical piece about whole grains. The New Abbey corn mill in Dumfries and Galloway has a colourful history when it comes to whole grains. The three-storey, whitewashed mill building was built towards the end of the 18th century by the Stewarts of nearby Shambellie house. However, it is thought that the site dates to much earlier than that, perhaps to as early as the late 13th century, when Cistercian monks established the monastery Dulce Cor, or Sweetheart abbey, at the far end of the village. The mill is known locally as the Monk’s mill, and it provided whole grain to the surrounding townships of Dumfries, Annan and Kirkcudbright. It can still be viewed in working order today and, as always, I encourage everyone to come and see what Dumfries and Galloway has to offer, when it is safe to do so.

In Scotland, 459,400 hectares of cereals and oilseeds were grown in 2018. That consisted of mostly spring and winter barley. We also grow a large amount of wheat, oats and oilseed rape as well as a smaller amount of rye. More than 12 per cent of the UK’s cereal is grown in Scotland. As well as providing nourishment for millennia, whole grains play their part in public health. Scotland’s dietary fibre intake is currently below the recommended daily amount despite the proven health benefits of whole grains. The evidence shows that whole grains lower the risk of being overweight or obese and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, stroke and bowel cancer.

In particular, I want to mention oats, which we are very familiar with here in Scotland. In his poem “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”, Robert Burns talked about

“The halesome parritch, chief o Scotia’s food”.

Oats are among the healthiest greens on earth. As Elaine Smith pointed out during Stewart Stevenson’s speech, oats are gluten free. Oats are loaded with important vitamins and minerals and are rich in antioxidants including avenanthramides, which can help to lower blood pressure by increasing the production of nitric oxide; that gas molecule helps dilate blood vessels and leads to better blood flow. Oats contain large amounts of beta glucan, which is a type of soluble fibre. Beta glucan partially dissolves in water and forms a thick gel-like solution in the gut. The health benefits of beta glucan fibre include reduced low-density lipoprotein and total cholesterol levels, reduced blood sugar and insulin response, increased feeling of fullness and increased growth of good bacteria in the digestive tract. Our grannies were right: we should be eating our parritch every morning.

Although the evidence clearly shows the health benefits of whole grain, there is currently no official advice on the amount of whole grains that we should eat. Experts recommend consuming at least three servings of whole grains every day. It is easy to eat whole grains. We can choose wholegrain bread, wholegrain rice and wholegrain pasta. We can switch from white flour to whole grain and here in Scotland we can also choose excellent oatmeal. Parritch oats, oat bars and popcorn are all excellent wholegrain snacks. Before today, I had less knowledge about whole grains. I now know more about bulgur, rice, corn, oats, farro, teff, sorghum, quinoa, buckwheat and spelt. Can the minister outline whether the Government has any plans to consider advice on daily intake of whole grains for the people of Scotland?


Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I thank Stewart Stevenson for lodging this motion on an important matter of public health. The old adage that you are what you eat is very true. For example, my personal health and interest in thyroid disorders has shown me that a gluten-free diet can make a big difference to general health and wellbeing and, as we have heard, many whole grains are gluten free, with others available as gluten-free products. Reinforcing the message that a healthy diet is important to all of us is particularly pertinent given that this year has been one of ill health for many people.

Colleagues may know that I am currently working on introducing a right to food bill, which seeks to enshrine the right to food in Scots law. The proposal would seek to place duties on the Government to ensure that, now and into the future, food is accessible to people financially and geographically and that it is adequate in terms of nutrition, safety and cultural appropriateness. The awareness raising around international whole grain day, marked on 19 November, seems to be very much part of the growing recognition that we must join up the campaign against food insecurity with a campaign against malnutrition and for making nutritious food affordable and available to all.

In its 2020 “State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report”, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN stated:

“It is unacceptable that, in a world that produces enough food to feed its entire population, more than 1.5 billion people cannot afford a diet that meets the required levels of essential nutrients and over 3 billion people cannot even afford the cheapest healthy diet. People without access to healthy diets live in all regions of the world; thus, we are facing a global problem that affects us all.”

Sadly, it notes in the same report that, five years after the world committed to end hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition, we are still off track for achieving that objective by 2030.

Backing up the importance of the wholegrain content in what we eat, the FAO suggests that consuming 50g of whole grains per day is associated with a

“19 to 24 per cent reduction in all-cause mortality amongst adults”.

That is a huge impact, which certainly must be highlighted.

However, perhaps even more importantly, across the 21 different regions included in the study, low wholegrain intake was identified as the

“greatest risk factor for death and loss of disability-adjusted life years, with intakes less than 50 grams risking 3 million deaths.”

Those are stark figures.

One obstacle to wholegrain consumption is a lack of consistency around the definition of wholegrain foods, even across the EU, where—surprisingly—there is no clear legislation regarding labelling. Stewart Stevenson identified that as an important issue in his opening speech.

The most recent dietary guidelines provided by the WHO and other international food and nutrition authorities recommend that half our daily intake of grains should come from whole grains, a point that Emma Harper made earlier. However—what are whole grains, what are their health benefits, and where can they be found? Stewart Stevenson enlightened us on those questions in his usual inimitable way. I also must admit that, when researching for this speech, I discovered that popcorn is a wholegrain food, which Emma Harper mentioned in passing. More than that, it is a high-quality carbohydrate source that, consumed naturally, is not only low in calories and cholesterol but a good source of fibre and essential vitamins, including folate, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, pantothenic acid and vitamins B6, A, E and K.

Emma Harper

The member mentioned popcorn. I am curious as to whether she prefers hers with salt or butter?

Elaine Smith

That is a very unfair question, but I would probably have to go with butter. Given the content of the debate, we maybe need to rethink that.

One serving of popcorn in fact contains about 8 per cent of the daily iron requirement, with lesser amounts of calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. While I was writing that, I thought, “I am beginning to sound like Stewart Stevenson”. [Laughter.]

Of course, a big obstacle to nutritious food is affordability. We need to look at food systems, support our small-scale producers to get their foods to market at low cost, support our farmers to respect the environment, and ensure that nobody is denied a healthy diet because of high prices. Jamie Halcro Johnston touched on those issues. The challenge is even greater because the most vulnerable groups are those most impacted by the economic consequences of the pandemic. During the pandemic, many new food aid networks have grown and existing ones have expanded, and they deserve our thanks.

As part of the consultation on my proposed right to food bill, I was privileged to hear about many projects that are tackling hunger and malnutrition and taking an innovative approach to food supply. There is no doubt that increasing the consumption of whole grains can play its part on our road towards becoming a good food nation, improving nutrition, and tackling our ill health record. I look forward to hearing how the minister might help with that and, once again, I thank Stewart Stevenson.


The Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing (Joe FitzPatrick)

I thank Stewart Stevenson for the opportunity that we have had to mark the recent international whole grain day which, as he said, was established last year to raise awareness of whole grains and their role in healthy sustainable diets. We have also had the opportunity to debate improving Scotland’s diet, including by increasing the consumption of fibre.

As wholegrain foods contribute to fibre intake, they form an important part of working towards our dietary goals for fibre. I enjoyed the contributions from across the chamber. Elaine Smith talked, among other things, about the benefits of popcorn. I use an almost dry fryer to make my popcorn and I pop it with chillies so that I do not need to add salt or butter. It is therefore really healthy and really tasty.

Emma Harper and Stewart Stevenson talked about the benefits of porridge. Emma talked in great detail about the benefits of oats in general, and she also mentioned barley, which is a bit of an enigma. Although most grains have most of their fibre only on the outside, meaning that it is important that we have them in as unrefined and as whole a form as possible, barley has its fibre all the way through. Therefore, even the most processed pearl barley—although it is clearly not as good as pot or other less-refined barleys—has a high proportion of fibre throughout. It is a very underrated grain. Many people think that barley is just for putting in soup or maybe strew, but I encourage anyone who is looking to get a bit of variety into their diet to consider trying barley—preferably pot barley, as it has a bit more fibre—as a substitute for rice. It is very tasty, and it is easy to cook, as it does not stick together. It therefore has loads of benefits as well as being a very healthy Scottish grain.

My ambition is a Scotland where we all eat well, have a healthy weight and are physically active. As part of that, we have set an ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030 and to significantly reduce diet-related health inequalities. Our 2018 diet and healthy weight delivery plan sets out a broad range of decisive actions to help realise our vision. I am in no doubt about the scale of the challenge.

At a population level, poor diet is measured by the extent to which we as a nation are meeting Scotland’s dietary goals. Those goals provide the basis for a healthy, balanced diet that can reduce diet-related conditions—including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancers—and improve dental health.

In its 2020 update to the situation report “The Scottish Diet—It needs to change”, Food Standards Scotland makes clear that we are consistently failing to meet our dietary goals. As Stewart Stevenson set out, we are also far from meeting our goal on fibre. The current average fibre intake is around 16g per day, so there is much to be done to meet the fibre intake goal of 30g a day.

Emma Harper asked about advice on eating whole grains. Our “Eatwell Guide” shows the type of diet that we need to have in order for Scotland to meet its dietary goals. The guide recommends that people choose high-fibre, wholegrain varieties of starchy foods wherever possible.

As Stewart Stevenson pointed out, although whole grains usefully contribute to a healthy diet, it is also important to consider the overall balance of the diet. We should not increase whole grains at the expense of increased sugar and salt intakes. If we want to have salt on our popcorn, we therefore need to ensure that we are getting that balance right. Other components of a healthy, balanced diet—such as fruit and vegetables—also contribute to our intake of fibre and other micronutrients.

Stewart Stevenson also talked about what the Danish Government has done in this area. As members would expect, I have several pages of detail on what Denmark has done, all of which is informing our work. I will talk about some of the actions that we are taking to improve fibre intake in Scotland. Jamie Halcro Johnston talked about nutrition in education, and our school food and drink regulations have been revised to reflect the recommendations of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, including its recommendation on fibre. The revised school food and drink regulations are intended to be implemented next April, and include a number of food-based standards that have been developed to increase fibre intake. For example, new standards have been created for breakfast cereals and bread that stipulate that, when provided, those products must have a minimum fibre content of 3g per 100g. We all know that the easiest way to achieve that is to use whole grains in their constitution.

Mr Halcro Johnston also talked about nutritional information and labelling. A four-nations consultation paper was published in July this year that asked a range of questions, including whether front-of-pack nutrition labels should reflect the latest dietary advice on fibre. That is a good example of how we can work together with the other Administrations across the UK. The consultation recently closed, and we will continue to work together in considering our next steps.

Our principal means of raising awareness of healthier eating among families is through the Parent Club. Our parental audience marketing strategy joins up all the Scottish Government communications for parents and families, and it encourages healthier eating and exercise in a way that highlights the immediate benefits for parents as well as children by providing ideas and tips for common daily parenting challenges.

Increasing fibre intake is very important for the weight management standards and education elements of our type 2 diabetes prevention programmes.

One more positive aspect of the changed behaviours resulting from the Covid-19 lockdown has been more cooking at home. I am keen to retain such positive changes, so we have agreed to allocate an additional £30,000 this financial year under the healthy living programme for our cooking at home campaign. The healthy living programme is administered by the Scottish Grocers Federation in supporting independent retailers to offer healthier choices. We all know that members of the Scottish Grocers Federation tend to be situated in the more deprived parts of our communities—it is a very important partnership.

I absolutely recognise that there is much more for us to do. I hope that I have shown that we are taking a number of actions, although there is much more to do in order to meet our dietary goals, including in relation to fibre intake, which is far too low, as we have discussed. I welcome the opportunity that the debate has provided for us to discuss the issue in general but also for me to lay out some of the actions that the Scottish Government is taking to improve Scotland’s diet in relation to fibre and more generally.

I again thank Stewart Stevenson for lodging the motion and other members for their contributions this evening.

Meeting closed at 19:11.