WASHINGTON — New research published in the medical journal Advances in Nutrition concludes that refined grain intake should not be linked to chronic diseases or death. The study “Perspective: Refined grains and health: Genuine risk, or guilt by association?” found that current dietary recommendations by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and similar groups endorsing the reduction of refined grain consumption are misguided because their research only takes into account dietary patterns, not separate food groups.
“While refined grains are frequently characterized as unhealthy, this can be attributed to their inclusion in a dietary pattern that contains foods that are the real culprits in the link between an unhealthy dietary pattern and increased risk of a number of chronic diseases,” said the study’s author Glenn Gaesser, Ph.D., professor of exercise science and health promotion and director of the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center at Arizona State University. He is also a member of the scientific advisory boards of the Grain Foods Foundation, the Wheat Foods Council and Ardent Mills.
According to the study, Western diets typically include red and processed meat, foods and beverages high in sugar, french fries, high-fat dairy products, and refined grains. This eating pattern is linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases. When this eating pattern is studied as a whole, it takes away from the benefits of products that may be healthy when studied in isolation. In addition, Dr. Gaesser believes these studies led to the “make-half-your-grains-whole” recommendation from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
To determine the health impacts of products made with refined grains, Dr. Gaesser reviewed research that analyzed items separately, and not as part of a Western dietary pattern. Products examined included bread, cereals, pasta, cookies, cakes, donuts, brownies, muffins, sweet rolls or buns, sweets, pizza, and desserts made with grains.
After reviewing 11 meta-analyses of prospective cohort studies, which included a total of 32 publications with data from 24 distinct cohorts, he found that refined grain intake was not associated with all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease or obesity.
The research also suggested that products made with refined grains as well as high amounts of fat or sugar perpetuate the ingredients’ negative perception.
“The important takeaway of this study is that consumers need to know their stuff before they cut,” said Sylvia Klinger, a registered dietitian nutritionist who sits on the scientific advisory board of the Grain Foods Foundation. “The make-half-your-grains-whole messaging has dominated. However, enriched grain messaging has been lost. Eliminating enriched grain products will result in nutrient shortfalls. Refined grain foods that have been enriched and/or fortified help to alleviate shortfalls including B vitamins, folic acid, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and the mineral iron.”
Ms. Klinger believes consumers should increase their intake of whole grains without having to reduce refined grain consumption.
“Consumers can enjoy up to six or seven servings per day of refined grains without increasing risk for coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension or premature death,” she explained.
When conducting future research on refined grains, Dr. Gaesser said intake should be better defined to distinguish between staple grain foods and indulgent grain foods. He also noted that randomized controlled trials need to be designed to determine the benefits of whole grains compared with refined grains.