Debunking gluten, grain myths

by Monica Watrous
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Grain Foods
Fad diets aside, many consumers believe grains are to blame for the rise in obesity.
Wheat is the new asbestos — or at least that’s what bloggers and best-selling books like “Grain Brain” and “Wheat Belly” suggest, said Julie Miller Jones, Ph.D.

“You have all kinds of people professing that not eating gluten helped them win Wimbledon and not eating gluten made them a movie star … and that we didn’t evolve to eat grain, and that it’s destroying our brains,” said Miller Jones, a certified nutritionist and scientific adviser for the Grain Foods Foundation. “Bloggers say grains are really bad for you. It’s interesting that every government in the entire world says we should have 45% to 65% of our calories coming from carbohydrates. Nearly every diagram, pyramid, plate … the bottom layer is grain. The world agrees that grain is what we ought to be eating.”

Miller Jones addressed common myths and misperceptions surrounding grains and gluten during a presentation at the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE), Oct. 8-11 in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. She also discussed the nutritional ramifications of avoiding grains.

“The paleo people claim that we didn’t evolve to eat wheat or grain,” she said.

To the contrary, humans have been eating grains for more than 100,000 years, as proven by dental record evidence. Cooked grain DNA was found in the dental calculus of Paleolithic-era humans, Miller Jones said.

“Not only did we evolve to eat grains, but that actually promoted human evolution,” she said. “Normal primates have two copies of amylase enzymes, which break starch down. Humans are the only ones that have six copies of amylase enzymes. Because we have six copies that meant our brain could grow more rapidly so we could evolve to be a higher being than all primates. Cooked carbohydrates enabled that evolution.”

Fad diets aside, many consumers believe grains are to blame for the rise in obesity.

Julie Miller Jones
Julie Miller Jones speaks about the value of grain-based nutrition at the IBIE in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.
“In 2016, in every state, 20% of the people are obese (and) about two-thirds of us are obese or overweight,” Miller Jones said. “Grain consumption is flat or going down, and obesity in kids all over the world is going up. So, if grains are the problem, we should be losing weight, not gaining it.”

A meta-analysis of 45 studies published this year revealed consumption of whole grains lowered relative risk of disease and death.

Beyond health implications, grains are critical for protecting the world’s food supply.

“As you know we’re going to have 9 billion people on the planet in 2050… and grains make up 73% of the harvested acres and provide about 50% of the world’s calories,” Miller Jones said. “By 2050, we will need more than 40% more in terms of production, and that number will be even greater because many times we’re seeing as populations move from developing to transitional to developed, they eat more meat, and the more meat we eat, the more grain is required.

“We already have intensive production, and we’re using a variety of methods to increase yield. There is only 20% more land that we can take, and a lot of that is forest … so which natural park do you want to cut down?”

Corn, wheat and rice provide two-thirds of the world’s calories and, coupled with barley, sorghum, oats, rye and millet, supply half of the world’s protein. These crops also are denser in calories per acre than lentils, green beans and quinoa.