Editorial: Less 'black and white' in eating bread

by Morton I. Sosland
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Just a few countries in the advanced world may be counted by grain-based foods for avoiding periodic, horrific assaults on their principal products as deficient in human nutrition. Indeed, in the United States as well as in Europe and Australia the cacophony from self-proclaimed experts has become damaging enough to prompt steps by individual companies as well as by national organizations aimed at showing just how wrong such attacks are. These positive responses thus far lack the power required to restore consumer appreciation for the many benefits derived from wheat flour and bread. This shortfall results largely from falsehoods that seem beyond belief, except for their force.

Recently cited as one of the brakes acting to put a lid on the industry’s response is belief that the great nutritional value of grain-based foods has been proven by studies conducted in the distant past. Indeed, the start of the enrichment program for flour and bread came in America in 1941 when it was realized that these products offered the perfect channel for health gains at a time of encroaching war. Enrichment with iron and B vitamins became a program deserving of government mandates when human tests conducted in isolated areas like Canadian Newfoundland showed how eating enriched bread markedly bettered health of children and adults. So convincing were results measuring the benefits of fortified flour that enrichment quickly gained global acceptance.

That studies conducted 75 years ago no longer carry the same power should not be surprising in light of the way modern-day youth are influenced by the newest findings about what is best to eat. Watching how consumption is affected not just by scientifically-approved nutrition studies but also by semi-professional findings and biased promotions offers convincing evidence of what is at work. No better example of this exists than the decreases in per capita wheat flour consumption occurring in the United States in the first decade of the 21st century, which may be traced to anti-carbohydrate propaganda and marketing. Similarly, promotion of whole grain products as superior to enriched products is easier to say than to prove.

All too often such assertions, making one category black and the other white, reflect what is described as scientific findings revealing the health-related outcomes of eating patterns covered by giant data bases. These studies fail to acknowledge how problematic it is to capture the diets of specific groups directed to follow particular patterns. Individual records of consumption frequently show little or no accuracy. Such difficulties have culminated in one leading authority declaring that any desired outcome may be had from examining such data.

Even with all these doubts about the quality of data obtained from undertaking such studies, their results are being cited as the basis for diet recommendations put forward by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health as well as in the deliberations leading to the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans released at the start of 2016. Recommendations that half of grain-based foods consumed should be whole grains as well as urging any effort to eat less should mean less “refined grains” stands as the last straw for all those caring about enriched flour and bread.

Reacting to this dismal situation led to the reality that studies comparing the two sorts of flour are lacking. The Grain Foods Foundation, which is supported by the grain-based foods industry, did a study happily showing that people consuming all sorts of grain-based foods benefit much better from their diets than those who consume no grain-based foods. Especially important is this study’s finding that efforts to paint whole grain versus enriched flour and bread is “too black and white,” that it would be far better to urge consumption of all grain-based foods rather than two categories emphasizing one. Additional studies are needed to provide a persuasive base for such an approach. Its adoption would do so much for grain-based foods and for all consumers.

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