ALEXANDRIA, VA. — In a presentation chock full of findings from recent research on whole grains consumption, Julie Miller Jones, endowed chair in nutrition science at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn., challenged participants at the "Make (at least!) half your grains whole" conference April 20-22 in Alexandria to dig inside the science to help create messages that better describe the benefits of whole grains.
Drawing on experience gained at a whole grains conference held in late March at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, Ms. Miller Jones said credible research from credible scientists has muddied the waters at a time when consumers are confused as to what whole grains are and what their benefits may be.
"Just when you think you know something you don’t always have the scientific basis to prove it," Ms. Miller Jones said in her opening remarks.
Long a proponent of whole grains consumption, Ms. Miller Jones discussed recent whole grains research that has become increasingly confusing. She cited numerous studies showing how whole grains consumption may play a role in improved health benefits such as lower risk for cardiovascular disease or type II diabetes, while pointing out a few studies that have shown little impact. In all cases, she cautioned that science is "evolutionary, never revolutionary."
What should the whole grains industry do with the inconsistencies in research? In Ms. Miller Jones opinion, more clinical trials and mechanisms need to be incorporated. In addition, she suggested more consideration be given to the individuals taking part in the studies.
"Maybe when we’re doing a study we need to start looking more carefully at the genetic makeup," she said. "Because if I take a healthy person with regular blood glucose and regular blood lipids, and I feed whole grains I may not get an effect. So maybe we need to be more careful about who our subjects are."
As an example of the confusion surrounding whole grains, Ms. Miller Jones referred to research published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews that examined several studies where consuming whole grains helped reduce the risk of type II diabetes as well as others that showed only a slight improvement. In the end, the authors in the review said that while the data exist to back the claim, the evidence was too weak to reach a definitive conclusion.
This sort of confounding evidence is a major problem for the whole grains industry, Ms. Miller Jones said.
"I have credible scientists saying two different things, and now we’ve got to go out and talk to the public about it," she said.
She also questioned how studies on whole grains have been carried out. In one study, consumers were asked to eat more whole grains, which they did, but in doing so failed to cut back on the grains they already were eating, resulting in calorie overload.
"Americans hear the word ‘more’ and they did it," she said of the research. "We need to be very careful about what message we’re giving and the message we’ve got to be giving is ‘make half your grains whole by replacing refined grains with whole grains.’ Unless we give that message people love to eat more because it means they don’t have to eat less. And they’re not good at that."
Another misnomer is that all whole grains are alike. Just as an eggplant is a different vegetable than a carrot, so too are rye and quinoa different types of whole grains.
"Assuming that they’re (the different whole grains) all going to do the same thing is maybe a wrong-headed assumption," Ms. Miller Jones said. "We need all of them because they do different things. Maybe we need to talk about how some grains lower cholesterol. Maybe it would take longer to do the research."
She also stressed that researchers need to be careful about what they are saying.
"I would like to propose that we start thinking about when we’re making recommendations for healthy people that we don’t use as the gold standard a randomized clinical trial because we’re not sick," she said.
Even while exhibiting some frustration with conflicting research, Ms. Miller Jones remained steadfast in her support of whole grains as part of a healthy diet.
"There is sufficient evidence showing that higher whole grain diets compared to refined grain diets are beneficial for several outcomes," she said. "High bran fibers are not equal to whole grain diets but also have beneficial relationships with health. Not all whole grains or fibers have equal effects on health or do we have equal the level of evidence.
"We have good information, we have conflicting results, but don’t conclude that’s worthless. It means we need more data and it means that we need to be terribly clear when we’re talking to consumers what we’re saying and how.
"I still believe, as a disciple, that whole grains are a really healthy choice."
This article can also be found in the digital edition of Milling and Baking News, May 5, 2009, starting on Page 32. Click