DENVER – At this year’s Cereals & Grains 19, held Nov. 3-5, researchers addressed consumer assumptions about the healthfulness of grain-based foods in the symposium “Have Refined, Enriched Grain Staples Been Unfairly Demonized?”

Julie Miller Jones, Ph.D., professor emeritus St. Catherine University; Yanni Papanikolaou, Ph.Dc, Nutritional Strategies; and Chris Seal, emeritus professor of food and human nutrition, Newcastle University, detailed how the science does not support popular public opinion that grains, even enriched grains, are a detriment to health. Study after study, in fact, they said shows the opposite, that when consumed in the recommended amounts, whole grain foods and enriched grain foods are actually linked to markers of good health.

Dr. Jones detailed how the demonization of refined grains occurred in the first place. Unequal reporting and unbalanced intake between whole grains and refined grains has caused many of the misconceptions related to nutrition and refined grains.

“Whatever disease end point you look at, including death from all causes, the risk decreases for people who eat 90 grams of whole grains foods a day,” she explained, referencing the research initially used to show the discrepancy in health benefits of whole grains and refined.

At the time this research was done, however, whole grain foods mostly represented staple foods such as bread, which were underconsumed. Refined grains represented indulgent foods, such as snack cakes and donuts, which were overconsumed, leading Dr. Jones to question, is it really the grains that’s causing the harm?

“We do eat too many refined grains and not enough whole grains,” she said. “However, it’s not the grains that’s causing the problem, it’s the amount that we’re eating.”

Dr. Jones cited study after study showing that when consumed in recommended quantities, refined grains staple foods like bread and rice had little to no impact on mortality, BMI or even type 2 diabetes risk.

In his research, Yanni Papanikolaou developed models to show what would happen to nutrition levels in the U.S. population if people eliminated 25%, 50% and 100% of grains from their diet. He found that the number of Americans consuming less than the EAR of the shortfall nutrients determined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration increased when grains were eliminated at every level, sometimes dramatically. For example, while at the current American diet, 52.4% of adults are below the EAR for magnesium, if you remove 100% of grains from the diet, that percentage jumps to 70%. When models adding those nutrients to bread and ready-to-eat cereals through enrichment, nutrient adequacy was improved in adults.

“Grain foods are a solution to bridging the gap in nutrient recommendations,” Mr. Papanikolaou said. “Eliminating them may have unintended consequences.”

One alarming consequence was just shown in a study published in 2018 from the University of North Carolina. The study found that women with low carbohydrate intake were 30% more likely to have babies with neural tube defects, when compared with women not restricting carbohydrates. Enriched flour, which contains folic acid, the nutrient critical to preventing these defects, was hailed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the Top 10 public health achievements of the first decade 21st century. Since the F.D.A. required the fortification of enriched grains with folic acid in 1998, the rate of these defects has decrease aby about one-third.

While both Dr. Jones and Mr. Papanikolaou’s research shows that refined grains have been unfairly demonized, they still agree that research shows whole grains to be preferable for nutrition. Dr. Seal attempted to address the question of how much of our diet should be whole grains in order to get the maximum benefit.

He found that while whole grain foods increase fiber and micronutrients in the diet, lower energy density and reduces the risk of chronic diseases, more whole grains does not mean increased benefits. These gains appear to level off at a certain point.

“The relationship of whole grains to health outcomes is consistent, but the dose amount remains unclear,” Dr. Seal explained.

He found that the optimal level of whole grain consumption appears to be 100 to 125 grams per day, or about 3 servings.