One of the more thought provoking presentations on the role of whole grains in the diet in recent years was offered at a whole grains conference recently by Dr. Julie Miller Jones, endowed chair in nutrition science at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn. In her talk, Dr. Jones bemoaned the challenge faced by nutritionists trying to offer definitive statements about the healthfulness of whole grains.

While many studies have demonstrated whole grains improve cardiovascular health or reduce the risk of Type II diabetes, she said a few studies have shown little impact. The confounding data are particularly troubling because the public already is so confused about health issues, Dr. Jones said.

"Just when you think you know something you don’t always have the scientific basis to prove it," she said.

Actually, this observation cuts to the heart of the problem facing whole grain advocates. If you don’t have the scientific basis to prove something, then you don’t actually know it. Data about the healthfulness of whole grains certainly have been compelling, but researchers increasingly have recognized the need for a deeper understanding of the underlying mechanism for the benefits of whole grains.

For example, a scientist would have no such difficulty explaining the benefits of enriched grains versus non-enriched grains in preventing a range of maladies from anemia to neural tube birth defects. In the meantime, Dr. Jones essentially acknowledged that advocates must avoid the temptation to overreach in their conclusions.

"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," she said.

It’s nuanced advice that suggests that adding whole grains to the diet should be pursued but that displacing enriched grains does not merit the zealotry currently accorded. Enriched grains frequently are vilified with passion comparable to attacks against added fats and sugars, analysis that is inaccurate and unjust.