KANSAS CITY — It has been three months since a new strategic plan was unveiled by the Grain Foods Foundation (GFF). Recent comments submitted by the GFF to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee for 2025 offer a glimpse into how the new plan may shape the group’s future advocating for the grain-based foods industry.
In a key respect, the strategic plan charts a different course for the organization than has been pursued since its founding in 2004. Largely gone from the key objectives is an emphasis on product promotion, which had been a prominent and often attention-grabbing element of the GFF’s work. At times, product promotion has been polarizing for the industry, with proponents viewing it as key to boosting grain foods consumption. Opponents raised questions about its efficacy voicing concerns about its expense, and some expressed the view that product promotion should be the domain of individual companies. In contrast to the friction generated by plans for product promotion, the grain-based foods industry has always firmly stood together in support of well-considered research that aims to highlight the health benefits of wheat-based foods and debunks unfounded allegations by critics.
The new plan’s first two strategic pillars are closely related — research and expertise. Both have been part of the foundation’s work from the start. The strategic plan offers a bold vision of the GFF as a “thought-leader and science-driver in the grain-based foods category by facilitating, funding, translating, and magnifying both peer-reviewed nutrition science and consumer insights research.” Toward that end, the foundation is looking to fund at least two research projects each year, a marked increase from the past. Erin E. Ball, executive director of the GFF, has said research will look to answer consumers’ “questions around nutrition science with more focus, more efficiency and more power.”
Under the plan, the foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board will remain core to the GFF’s work as a “strong in-house resource of the advancement of grain foods nutrition science.”
Comments submitted in July by Ms. Ball to the 2025 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee may be seen as a case study for what might be possible if the strategic plan is executed. Written in response to a solicitation by the committee for feedback on its process, Ms. Ball took aim at a fundamental shift over the last few cycles in the Guidelines away “from single nutrients or foods to dietary patterns as a way to more comprehensively represent the totality of the diet and nutrient profiles.”
The shift, Ms. Ball noted, lumps together as one intake of red and processed meat, sugary foods and beverages, french fries, high-fat dairy products and refined grains. Citing data that this eating pattern is linked to higher incidence of chronic disease, the Guidelines encouraged consumers to shift their eating habits to a pattern that includes fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains.
“It is plausible that the risk associated with refined grain food intake, specifically, is not attributable to refined grain foods per se but rather to the other foods within the unhealthy dietary pattern,” Ms. Ball said.
Her criticisms of the patterns approach rested on published work by Glenn Gaesser, PhD, chairman of the GFF Scientific Advisory Committee, showing a lack of data linking intake of refined grains to type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
As compelling as the findings may seem, at the time Dr. Gaesser’s research was published industry experts cautioned that the Dietary Guidelines process has become heavily invested in the dietary patterns approach, a commitment that will not be derailed by one or two studies alone.
Still, the message from Dr. Gaesser’s research and Ms. Ball’s comments should not be ignored by the committee. The power of such arguments will be greatly strengthened by further scientific data. The GFF is looking for new funding sources to successfully pursue its research ambitions, but full-throated support from the grain-based foods industry will be necessary if this worthwhile effort is to achieve its potential.