People who eat a lot of whole grains, which are naturally high in fiber, are less likely to have health problems.

But are Americans eating enough whole-grain foods?

Well, it depends on who you ask, says a new study, because there are multiple competing definitions of whole-grain foods.

In general, Americans are eating more whole-grain foods than ever before, according to a new study from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. The study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition today.

But the number of whole-grain foods eaten has gone up by either 39.5% or 61.5% over the past 20 years, depending on how whole-grain food is defined.

Additionally, Americans’ mean intake of whole-grain items varied greatly by definition and remained much below the daily minimum recommendation of three ounces.

The way consumers, academics, and decision-makers discuss whole-grain foods, according to the study, clearly needs to be standardized.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the American Heart Association, the American Association of Cereal Chemists International, and the Whole Grains Council were the five organizations whose definitions were evaluated in the research to see where they overlapped.

Researchers analyzed the dietary habits of approximately 39,700 people who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 2003 and 2018 using several definitions of whole-grain foods.

Mengxi Du, a PhD candidate in the Friedman School’s Nutrition Epidemiology and Data Science program, is the study’s lead author. 

They “found that each definition captured very different types of grain- or flour-containing foods as whole-grain foods, resulting in differences in the average consumption of whole-grain foods and the associated trends,” she says.

She said that in her experience as a customer, it might be difficult to tell from the package labels whether a food is made with whole grains or not. Recent polls show that almost half of American consumers face the same problems.

Whole-grain bread consumption grew under all criteria, but there were more discrepancies than commonalities when comparing the many types of whole-grain meals defined by these classifications.

The FDA’s definition was the strictest, classifying the fewest foods as whole-grain foods. On the other hand, the Whole Grains Council’s definition was the most flexible, but a previous study showed that it might be the least healthy.

One surprising thing was how the foods of different subgroups of the population were put into different categories depending on what definition was used.

Under all criteria, non-Hispanic white persons had a larger consumption of whole-grain foods than other racial/ethnic groups, except for the definition suggested by the American Heart Association, where Hispanic individuals had the greatest intake.

The American Heart Association’s definition may be more sensitive to recognizing corn-based burritos, tacos, and nachos as whole-grain items.

“We can’t say which is the best definition yet,” adds senior author Fang Fang Zhang, “as we need to assess the nutrient profiles of each and how these different definitions are associated with health outcomes.” 

The findings of the study, “however, underscore the imperative need for a consensus on whole-grain food definition. A consistent definition across agencies is essential to further promoting whole-grain food consumption in the U.S. population.”

The research presented in this paper was sponsored by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health under grant number R01MD011501.

Image Credit: Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Source: 10.1093/ajcn/nqac267


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