WASHINGTON — A scientific approach that explores the nutritional pros and cons of increasing and decreasing intake of a small selection of food groups, including staple grains, will be used by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) in its deliberations over the 2025-2030 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, said Erin E. Ball, executive director of the Grain Foods Foundation.

In an interview, Ms. Ball explained how the DGAC will use food pattern modeling in its deliberations.  

By examining hypothetical modifications to grain-based foods consumption through food pattern modeling, the DGAC will be able to assess those changes’ potential impacts on nutrient intake and overall health, Ms. Ball said. The modeling work will be overseen by the Dietary Patterns Subcommittee of the DGAC.

Initiated by the US Department of Agriculture in 2005, food pattern modeling examines variations of food patterns, or dietary patterns, frameworks to help consumers at various life stages choose nutrient-dense foods from each major food group. The USDA has identified three dietary patterns that constitute healthy eating: The Healthy US-Style Dietary Pattern, The Healthy Mediterranean-Style Dietary Pattern and the Healthy Vegetarian Dietary Pattern.  

With food pattern modeling, the Dietary Pattern Subcommittee poses hypothetical modifications to the current recommendations that fall within the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI).

The subcommittee then examines the potential impact of changes to food pattern recommendations on nutrient adequacy and health outcomes.

In the context of grains, food pattern modeling addresses questions such as, “What happens to nutrient adequacy if recommended grain amounts are adjusted?”

“The 2025 committee’s work with food pattern modeling deserves close attention from the food industry,” Ms. Ball said. “It’s really the headline for a number of food groups, including the grains group.

“The committee plans to analyze hypothetical modifications that they’ve set up in their protocols for both food groups and dietary patterns.”

Tied to this work is the DGAC’s first time deployment of a Health Equity Working Group to ensure that food access, dietary restrictions, budgetary concerns, and the prevalence of diverse cultural foodways are consistent considerations for every subcommittee.

With the food pattern modeling process, the DGAC recommendations will be able to provide greater flexibility for the diversity of dietary needs and preferences and various cultural foodways without negatively impacting nutrient adequacy or health outcomes.

The emphasis on health equity within the modeling process will account for variability in dietary intakes and examine the potential impact of modifying USDA food patterns to accommodate cultural preferences, affordability, and dietary restrictions, including for those who avoid gluten or follow low-carbohydrate diets. For example, many cultural foodways do not include whole grains.

Expanding options within DGA recommendations is important because “when there’s flexibility in the guidelines, school lunches and child/adult feeding programs will be able to be reimbursed for foods other than those specifically delineated in the pattern,” Ms. Ball said.

The committee is examining whether non-grain staple carbohydrates such as starchy vegetables, beans/peas/lentils, and red/orange vegetables offer dietary alternatives to whole and refined grain foods and still meet current DRIs.

By examining hypothetical modifications to grain-based foods consumption, the modeling/analysis subcommittee will be able to assess those changes’ potential impacts on nutrient intake and overall health, Ms. Ball said.

While the DGAC also will explore low-carbohydrate options, Ms. Ball expressed the view these simulations will not generate recommendations that pose a serious threat to grain-based foods.

“We’re not feeling like it’s a crisis with low carb,” Ms. Ball said. “It’s just not affordable for starters.”

Heightened risks of neural tube birth defect if women of child-bearing age consume low-carbohydrate diets also represents a drawback as does all-cause mortality for men who adhere to a low-carbohydrate diet over the long term.

There has been “360-degree pressure, but especially on the government and the DGAC, to look at low carbohydrates,” Ms. Ball said. “But the committee hasn’t even talked about a ‘low-carb’ definition at this point.”

She does not expect that the DGAC will add a low carbohydrate dietary pattern to the three extant ones.  Likewise, Ms. Ball said she expects that the purpose of these simulations will be to add flexibility to existing dietary patterns.

“When you’re thinking about cultural subgroups in America, they are myriad,” Ms. Ball said. “How do you prioritize among many cultural foodways and regional variations within them?”  

Ms. Ball anticipates that “starchy vegetables may be able to slot in for some whole grain servings, but they won’t be able to slot in for refined and enriched grain servings,” which she added has been targeted in past DGA inquiries.

“You just can’t replicate what fortification does in refined grains with a vegetable switch,” she said. “Even if the starchy vegetable provides more fiber and potassium — which I think that will be a finding — it doesn’t bring the iron, folate, or folic acid that you find in refined enriched grains that provide fortifiers that are really important, especially for some vulnerable age and life stages.”

Ms. Ball suggested that the committee should consider that cereal (grain) fibers provide benefits different from those found in vegetable fibers.

Looking ahead, Ms. Ball shared that the GFF is well-positioned to engage with the committee's findings and contribute to evidence-based dietary recommendations.

“I think we’re finally positioned to play a long game with this Dietary Guidelines process and to be thinking ahead of not just what do we want to say in this round, but how we might direct our own research pipeline to answer the questions that the committee is asking now and should be asking into the future,” she said.

Ms. Ball summarized the GFF’s position, “We anticipate that these modeling studies undertaken by the subcommittee will vindicate refined grains and, in so doing, will emphasize the importance of grain food consumption overall.”