Assertions by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee linking refined grains with numerous health problems were challenged in testimony last week by a coalition known as the Grain Chain.

Speaking March 24 on behalf of the coalition of baking, milling, wheat, pasta and rice groups, was Glenn Gaesser, a professor in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona State University. Dr. Gaesser leads the Scientific Advisory Board of the Grain Foods Foundation. The testimony regarding the D.G.A.C. report was delivered during a public hearing conducted in the Mansur Auditorium at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

Part of the problem, in Dr. Gaesser’s view, is a tendency in the scientific community to lump too many products under the “refined grains” umbrella.

“In the scientific literature, enriched grain products, such as white bread, pasta and tortillas, are often classified as refined grains,” he said. “These staple products are routinely placed in the same category as more indulgent refined options such as cake. Throughout the committee’s report, emphasis is placed on targeted reduction of ‘refined grains.’

“Rather than ‘refined,’ ‘enriched’ is a more appropriate term to describe the grain products that the average American sees in the grocery aisle. These staple foods contain some fiber and are enriched with important nutrients, like thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and iron. They are fortified with folic acid, which is essential for women of childbearing age to help prevent neural tube birth defects, the rate of which has decreased by 35% in the U.S. since the fortification of enriched grains began in 1998.”

Specifically commenting on the committee’s conclusions that higher consumption of refined grains is linked to higher risk of several chronic diseases, Dr. Gaesser said this determination is inconsistent with a large body of scientific evidence the committee did not cite. He said a number of studies show:

  • no association between enriched grain intake and risk of diabetes or cardiovascular disease;
  • a weak relationship between body mass index and enriched grain intake; and
  • comparable effects of whole and enriched grains in facilitating weight loss.

The D.G.A.C. report went on to note that if all grains were consumed as whole grains, without including any fortified whole grain products, there would be a risk of lower dietary folate and iron intake potentially imperiling individuals who may be at high risk for inadequate intakes of these nutrients.

“Because current regulations prohibit folic acid fortification of whole grain foods, except for breakfast cereals, it is important to have a balance of whole and enriched grains in a healthful diet,” Dr. Gaesser said. “Research strongly suggests that Americans’ health would be improved far more by increasing consumption of whole grains than by reducing consumption of enriched grains.”

Generally speaking, Dr. Gaesser was highly supportive of the committee’s emphasis on whole grain and their call for half of all grain intake to come from whole grains.

“This allows Americans to reap the multiple, established health benefits of whole grains, leaving the other half of daily grain intake for enriched grain products, which have their own unique benefits,” he said. “As a category, grain foods contribute vital, and often under-consumed, nutrients to the American diet, including 44% of all fiber. A number of scientific reports have demonstrated the distinctive benefits of cereal fiber compared to fiber from fruits and vegetables.”

Members of the Grain Chain include the American Bakers Association, the American Institute of Baking, the Grain Foods Foundation, the Grains for Health Foundation, the Independent Bakers Association, the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Pasta Association, the North American Millers’ Association, the Retail Bakers of America, the USA Rice Federation and the Wheat Foods Council.