More friend than foe

Refined grains may not be as bad for you as you thought. Consumption of refined grains, widely viewed as contributing to chronic disease, is not associated with risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), stroke or heart failure, according to a study published Sept. 19.

Food Business News and Milling and Baking News both recently reported on the study published in the journal Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine from Dr. Glenn Gaesser, Ph.D. and professor in the College of Health Solutions at the University of Arizona. Gaesser conducted meta-analyses of 17 relevant cohort studies that examined refined grains as a distinct consumption category. The results represent data from over 1.2 million participants in 21 countries across eight geographical regions, including the U.S., Japan, China, Finland and Sweden.

Although refined grains are included as a component of the Western dietary pattern, the results of the meta-analyses suggest that refined grains do not contribute to the higher CVD risk associated with this unhealthy dietary pattern. According to the study, this information should be considered in formulation of future dietary recommendations.

“Consistency was evident in that none of the meta-analyses showed a significant association between refined grain intake and risk of CVD, stroke or heart failure,” Gaesser wrote in his study discussion.

Gaesser’s findings are at odds with the 2015 and 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committees, which were based on dietary pattern research identifying patterns characterized by higher consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or non-fat dairy products, seafood, legumes and nuts, compared to Western dietary patterns characterized by higher intakes of red and processed meat, sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, french fries, high-fat dairy products, and refined grains.

Current U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that at least a half of grain consumption be from whole grains. Despite the well-documented health benefits of whole grain consumption, less than 7% of the U.S. population consumes the recommended minimum three servings per day of whole grains, and more than 70% of Americans consume less than one serving per day of whole grains.

In contrast, refined grain consumption in the U.S. is approximately five times greater than whole grains, accounting for approximately 80% of total grain intake.

“Although a Western dietary pattern, which includes refined grains, has been reported to be associated with increased risk of CVD, this association is likely attributable to components of the Western dietary pattern other than refined grains,” Gaesser wrote.

Refined grains can include both staple grain foods (e.g., bread, cereal, pasta, white rice) and indulgent grain foods (e.g., flour-based desserts such as cakes, cookies, doughnuts, muffins and pastries).

vanilla cupcake in a rainbow paper wrapperBecause white rice is a major refined grain consumed worldwide, a part of Gaesser’s meta-analysis also looked the association between white rice intake and CVD. Of the seven cohorts his meta-analysis assessed, he found no significant risk of CVD associated with white rice intake.

The study was supported in part by a grant from the Grain Foods Foundation. Gaesser is a scientific advisory board member of the Grain Foods Foundation and the Wheat Foods Council. The Washington Grain Commission is a member of the Wheat Foods Council.

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of Wheat Life Magazine.

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