It’s several weeks since the publication of a study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggesting that increasing intake of certain foods, particularly potato chips, causes greater weight gain over time. The paper, which has attracted considerable media attention, was written by a team of scientists led by Dariush Mozaffarian, an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. Other contributors included Walter Willett, who heads the nutrition department at the Harvard school.

Of interest to baking, the study said increased intake of refined grains was connected with an average gain of only 0.1 lb per year, versus 0.4 lb for potato chips. Given that other research indicates that a typical physically active six-foot man naturally gains weight over time, at a rate of 0.3 lb per year between the ages of 18 and 50, the finding for grains would seem benign. The researchers concluded otherwise.

“Strong positive associations with weight change were seen for starches, refined grains and processed foods,” they said.

While potato chips contain starch, they are a fatty food (57% of calories from fat, versus 38% from carbohydrates). Other foods the researchers found as major contributors to weight gain (far larger than grains) also were fatty, including red meat, processed meat and french fries.

Asked by Milling & Baking News to reconcile the criticism of carbohydrates with the study’s results seeming to point toward fatty foods, Dr. Mozaffarian seemed unfazed.

“The findings for starches, refined carbohydrates, and sugars were concordant and coherent with recent evidence from short-term intervention studies,” he said. He went on to add, “Comparing potato chips versus refined grains and sweets, both their expected biologic effects and standardized serving sizes should be fairly similar.”

This response in the face of data strongly suggesting fatty foods as a greater contributor to weight gain captures the reflexive “anti-carbohydrate” sentiment among certain researchers. It also underscores the horrific hurdles faced by grain-based foods in trying to achieve a level playing field within the nutrition research community.