The mission of the Wheat Foods Council is to educate the American public about the importance of grain foods in a healthy diet. We asked its president, Judi Adams, to shed light on the recent attacks on grain-based foods in relation to the worsening level of obesity in the U.S. population.
Judi Adams has more than 30 years of nutrition education experience ranging from assistant professor at North Dakota State University to nutrition positions at the N. Dakota Wheat Commission and National Sunflower Association. She owned her own nutrition and marketing company and served as Marketing Director for the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. She has served as president of the N. Dakota Dietetics Association and secretary of the national Society for Nutrition Education. She has been in her current position at the Wheat Foods Council since 1991.
WG: First of all, please tell us a little bit about the Wheat Foods Council — what is its mandate and whom does it represent?
Adams: The Wheat Foods Council is an industry-wide partnership dedicated to educating the consumer about the role of grain foods in a healthful diet. The majority of the chain from the producer through the end product manufacturer belongs to the Council.
WG: Grain-based foods are becoming a scapegoat for America’s obesity problem. Recently Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (part of United States Department of Health and Human Services), endorsed the findings of a study that pointed to cereal foods as the culprit and discredited the USDA’s own dietary guidelines, as depicted in the Food Guide Pyramid, that recommends consumers "choose a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains." What actions have you taken to challenge these assertions and what scientific research can you cite to counter these types of allegation?
Adams: We have written Dr. McClellan a letter (as you mentioned in last month’s issue of World Grain) citing discrepancies in Harvard’s own study. The World Health Organization released its recommendations this spring, suggesting 55% to 65% of calories come from carbohydrates. The National Academy of Sciences released a report in September 2002 that recommends 45% to 65% of calories be from carbohydrates. Meanwhile, a USDA study says that Americans are eating 350 more calories each day than we did in 1985. Too many calories and not even enough exercise are causing obesity.
WG: Could it not be argued that cereal foods are natural partners to fats and sugars — pastries and cakes, for example, are often loaded with them and pastas and bread are frequently smothered in high-fat toppings — so by cutting back on cereals, people would also reduce their total calorie intake?
Adams: Absolutely, cutting back on any food group would reduce calories. The key is to choose low fat/low calories foods and then treat yourself with the higher calorie ones on occasion. "All foods in moderation and increased physical activity" is the best lifestyle advice.
WG: Have cereals come under attack to the point that it is seriously affecting the sale of bread, breakfast cereals, pastas and other grain-based foods? How do the numbers line up compared with previous years?
Adams: Yes, we understand that our products are being hurt probably because of inaccurate nutrition information, but possibly because of ESL (Extended Shelf Life bread). The WFC’s job is nutrition education and we do not track sales — Sosland’s Milling and Baking News is probably the best source for sales info. (See related story on page 67.) We do know that wheat flour disappearance has decreased 10 pounds since 1997 (147 to 137 pounds). The new census numbers in 2000 made up for some of this decrease, but certainly not all of it.
WG: What are the most critical issues, aside from the national obesity issue, that the WFC is concerned with?
Adams: Our major agenda is to convince Americans that there is no silver bullet for weight loss — calories do, unfortunately, count. We plan to shift the blame from carbohydrates to calories — where it belongs. We are also campaigning to show that enriched grains are nutritious and that we are not eating enough whole grains. From the research, we know that we should be eating at least three whole grain foods a day and we are only eating about one.
WG: You recently announced "The Great Grain Campaign," which you described as "an aggressive campaign to restore the image of grain-foods in 2003-04." What will be the focus of the campaign and how will it be carried out?
Adams: We plan to carry it out like a political campaign. We are working with our grassroots coalition to start community education programs about the importance of carbohydrates in the diet. We are also developing political cartoons to place in newspapers across the U.S. We have enlisted the support of an exercise physiologist (Ph.D.) and a dietitian (who is finishing her Ph.D.) to meet with editors, hopefully get on talk shows and rewrite our Eating Well, Living Well workbook as a consumer publication to counteract the high protein diet books.
WG: What response have you heard from the grain-based foods industry in regards to this campaign, particularly millers? Many large national baking companies are just now starting to take proactive approaches towards the obesity issue. Millers, however, seem to have taken a "wait and see" attitude for quite some time as the Atkins storm kept brewing. Are they starting to feel the threat more greatly?
Adams: The entire industry — from the producers to the end-product manufacturers — is feeling the threat of this carb-bashing. The American Bakers Association and North American Millers Association are working to garner funding for a major campaign, which would be run through the Wheat Foods Council. Hopefully, this campaign will start in 2004.
WG: How important is it to offer a "united front" against this negative opinion towards grain-based foods?
Adams: Very important and not just to wheat organizations, but all carbohydrate organizations. We share research results and materials with USA Rice and the National Potato Board on a frequent basis.
WG: It seems quality artisan bread baking is really coming back into fashion in the U.S., and is commanding a price premium. Many small bakers are thriving, and significantly more are being given shelf space within large supermarkets. How do you explain this dichotomy between the attack on grain based foods and a seemingly rising premium bread market?
Adams: There is a disconnect between consumers’ perception of white artisan bread and commercial white bread. Nutritionally, the breads are exactly the same (assuming the artisan bread is enriched, which is not always the case). There is a niche market for the upscale bread, but the average consumer cannot afford it. While it is great these small businesses are successful and provide this product, they are obviously not making up for the decrease in wheat flour consumption via the mainstream markets.
Offering ‘grains of truth’
For more information about the Wheat Foods Council and its Great Grains Campaign, visit www.wheatfoods.org. The site provides numerous resources about the benefits of grains and issues surrounding international obesity rates and reviews of consumer attitudes. Also check out its report of new Gallup survey results, "Grains of Truth about Fad Diets & Obesity."
The U.S. industry isn’t the only one sensing the negative effects of fad diets and media against grain-based foods. Obesity is also a growing epidemic in Europe, particularly in the U.K. To combat this worrying trend, the nation’s Flour Advisory Board (FAB) commissioned an independent report from the Medical Research Council’s Resource Centre for Human Nutrition Research (HNR) in Cambridge. The report, "The Weight of the Nation: Obesity in the U.K.," is written by obesity-expert Dr. Susan Jebb. It notes that a diet high in complex carbohydrates can play a large role in overcoming obesity and maintaining good health. FAB will release the findings in late September.
For further information visit www.fabflour.co.uk