TEMPE, ARIZONA, U.S. — Successes for the grain-based foods industry evident in the details of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020 should be a source of pride, said Glenn Gaesser, chairman of the scientific advisory board of the Grain Foods Foundation. Gaesser, who is professor of exercise science and health promotion and director of the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center at Arizona State University, said the outcome should embolden the industry to pursue a fully positive public perception of grain-based foods.
The guidelines were made public Jan. 7, issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS).
Retained in the guidelines were recommendations from the 2010 guidelines calling for consumption of six servings of grains per day with at least half coming from whole grains. The “Grain Chain,” a grains industry coalition had sought the retention of this guidance.
“That was a big win and was somewhat surprising,” Gaesser said. “Language in the advisory committee report earlier this year about what they referred to as refined grains was pretty harsh — that intake of refined grains and added sugars should be limited.”
Gaesser also was pleased by language in the report that helped distinguish between the derogatory term “refined grains” and the more descriptive term “enriched grains.”
In a six-page letter sent in May to representatives of the USDA and HHS, the grain chain urged “use (of) the term ‘enriched grains’ when referring to refined grains, since more than 95% of the refined grains in the U.S. are enriched and fortified.”
The 2015-2020 Guidelines include the following passage:
Most refined grains are enriched, a process that adds back iron and four B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid). Because of this process, the term “enriched grains” is often used to describe these refined grains.
“That was good news,” Gaesser said last week. “We submitted good evidence-based documentation, supported by the scientific literature as part of what was sought. I can’t imagine any other input was submitted about enriched grains other than from the grain chain. Enrichment/fortification makes these products a good dietary choice.”
Despite the progress represented in the 2015-2020 guidelines, Gaesser said perceptions of grain-based foods remain far from optimal.
“The vast majority of Americans still have a negative view of anything refined,” he said.
The news media widely refers to white flour as empty calories, and refined grains are lumped into the same basket as added sugars, a food to be avoided, he said.
“I don’t think the grain foods industry should feel complacent,” he said. “This is going to be a continuing battle. There is a lot of negativity about carbs in general.”
Growing attention to different versions of the paleo diet has been fueling anti-carb sentiment most recently, Gaesser said.
Another reason for concern as the publication of the guidelines approached was the presence on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) of Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Hu for many years has worked closely with Professor Walter Willett at the Chan school, a longtime critic of enriched grains.
“He (Dr. Hu) is so forceful, and virtually everything he has written about grains has been negative,” Gaesser said. “I can only guess what he was trying to get the committee to do.”
Of particular concern was what Gaesser said was a history by Hu of selectively citing epidemiological data that supports his views while neglecting other papers equally powerful in depth and breadth of findings and reputation of journal.
“The 2015 DGAC report cited a 2014 meta-analysis in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics that indicated a positive relationship between refined (enriched) grain intake and risk of type 2 diabetes,” the grain chain said in its comments about the report. “However, refined grains were not analyzed separately, but only as part of a dietary pattern. Surprisingly, the 2015 D.G.A.C. report did not cite a 2013 meta-analysis published in the European Journal of Epidemiology that showed no relationship between refined (enriched) grain intake and diabetes risk.”
Gaesser said, “I understand they can’t cite everything. Other papers would have generated a different conclusion. The bulk of evidence just isn’t there to limit refined grains as recommended.”
Disappointing to bakers in the guidelines was the decision to recommend that sugar account for no more than 10% of daily caloric intake as well a recommendation about sodium.
“The science just is not strong when you look at added sugars and sugar in general, including HFCS,” Gaesser said. “There are a number of systematic reviews, and the evidence just is not there. We made comments about those last spring, but they just neglected those. Added sugars are an easy target. With refined grains, there is the case of the added value of enrichment. You just don’t have that with sugar.”