The United States government requires the research and publication of updated Dietary Guidelines every five years, and 2010 is one of those years. In preparation for the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, scheduled to be released later this year, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee – a group of leading nutrition experts appointed by the government for their scientific expertise – has been meeting for the past year.

In addition to spending untold hours working by phone and email, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) also holds periodic public meetings, so that their deliberations will be transparent, and so that all of us working in nutrition communication can get a sense of where the 2010 Dietary Guidelines may be headed. Last week, the DGAC held its next-to-last meeting, at which it presented draft conclusions of much of its work.

While these draft conclusions should not be considered final, they are based on a careful review of the latest nutrition science, so major changes of direction between these draft conclusions and the actual Dietary Guidelines are unlikely.

So what did the DGAC say about whole grains? We heard a strong message of continuing support for the importance of whole grains in the diet and for whole foods, rather than isolated nutrients, overall. Three discussions may be of particular interest to the whole grains community:

1) Make (at least) Half Your Grains Whole

Based on DGAC discussions, we expect that the 2010 Dietary Guidelines will continue to recommend that Americans make at least half their grains whole. There was no discussion about weakening this recommendation, and the Carbohydrate and Protein Subcommittee put forth this draft conclusion:

“Whole grain intake, which includes cereal fiber, protects against cardiovascular disease. Whole grain intake is also associated with lower blood pressure. Evidence suggests that consumption of whole grains is associated with a reduced incidence of type 2 diabetes. The lack of randomized, controlled trials limits a stronger conclusion. Intake of whole grains and grain fiber is associated with lower body weight.”

The Nutrient Adequacy Subcommittee carried out food-modeling exercises to explore what would happen if, in fact, we make all our grains whole. They found that some women of child-bearing age and kids ages 2-8 may fall short of the recommended levels of folate and iron, although this deficit can easily be addressed by fortifying some of their whole grains (e.g., eating fortified ready-to-eat breakfast cereal) or eating other folate-rich foods.

In response to this presentation, DGAC members carried on a lively discussion about the best way to convey this finding to the public. “Not all populations need this much folate!” “Over-fortification is a concern, too.” “Let’s emphasize a variety of folate foods. We used to get our folate from leafy greens…” “And orange juice and beans.” “We should stick to whole foods.”

Past nutrition policy has called for heavily fortifying and enriching refined grains to make up for a variety of good foods not generally eaten by the public. Enriched refined wheat contains 120% of the iron naturally found in whole wheat, and 416% of the natural folate level. Common sense says there are three approaches that the DGAC could recommend: Eat a variety of whole foods rich in folate; eat an inadequate diet with fortified whole grains; or eat an inadequate diet with enriched/fortified refined grains. Fortifying more whole grains may turn out to be the middle ground.

2) Refined Grains Targeted as One of Four Items to Avoid

The Nutrient Adequacy Subcommittee answered the question “What do we consume too much of, and should be concerned about?” by targeting four items for special attention:
a. Added sugars
b. Solid fats (trans fats and saturated fats)
c. Sodium
d. Refined grains

Although WGC data from NPD Group shows that whole grain consumption grew 20% from 2005 to 2008, almost all Americans still fall perilously short of the recommended three servings or more of whole grains daily.  While the Whole Grains Council will continue to focus on the positive message of “eat more whole grains” it is of course important for everyone to keep in mind that these additional whole grains should be instead of refined grains and not in addition to them.

In a corollary question, “What food groups do we consume too little of, and should be concerned about?” the Subcommittee singled out fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fluid milk and mllk products, and healthy oils for everyone, and iron-rich proteins for women of childbearing age.

3) Where do starchy vegetables fit?

Starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, green peas and a few others) have traditionally been considered a subgroup of vegetables. The Nutrient Adequacy Subcommittee explored the pros and cons of grouping starchy vegetables – consumed mostly (80%) as potatoes – with the grain group. They modeled a scenario in which 1.4 daily grain servings were eliminated (whole and refined grains equally) to make way for potatoes and other starchy vegetables, while increasing all other vegetables except legumes.

Some on the Committee weren’t happy with this idea. “We’re trying to say ‘Eat more, better vegetables.’ Isn’t this really what we want to say, instead of shifting potatoes and potentially cutting whole grains?” “[Yes that’s] a good point. We have to speak about specifying vegetables by name… Let’s make sure one message doesn’t overshadow the other.”  Just as we can all benefit from eating a variety of grains, eating a wide variety of vegetables is important to health.

What happens next

In May, the DGAC will have its final meeting, at which they will review and reach consensus on their final report. The report will then be submitted to USDA and HHS, and there will be a public comment period. Then, sometime this autumn, the new 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans will be unveiled and we’ll get the final word on the U.S. government’s new recommendations for whole grains.  We’ll keep you posted! (Cindy)

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