To grain or not to grain, that is the question.
Or… if you’re trying to cut back on gluten, the question might be about wheat instead.
Either way, grains have taken a hit in recent years with the popularity of several antigluten and antigrain diets on the rise.
The food industry and many nutritionists, though, are doing their best to keep the reputation of grains — especially whole grains — from going stale.
A new study sponsored by the food industry even suggests that refined grain foods like breads, rolls, and cereals aren’t so bad after all.
Eating enough whole grains
The amount of grains that Americans eat didn’t change much between 2004 and 2014, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
On average, Americans consumed slightly more than 6 ounce equivalents of grains per day — the amount recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020.
Ounce equivalents are a way to compare different foods. For example, 1 ounce equivalent of grains is found in one packet of instant oatmeal or 3 cups of popped popcorn.
These dietary guidelines are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. People who eat less overall would need fewer grains.
In 2014, Americans also ate 0.9 ounce equivalents of whole grains, a 50 percent increase since 2004.
“As somebody who goes out and promotes whole grains all the time, there’s been some progress,” said Joanne Slavin, PhD, RD, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota.
But this still falls short of the government’s dietary guidelines, which recommend that people get half their grains from whole grains.
That means the bulk of grains that Americans eat are “refined” — found in foods like breads, pizza dough, cookies, crackers, and doughnuts.
Enriched grain foods provide nutrients
Although many nutritionists may wring their hands at the stubborn American love of refined grain foods, a new study tries to paint a rosier picture.
The study, published last month in the journal Nutrients, found that breads, rolls, tortillas, and ready-to-eat cereals are “meaningful contributors” of nutrients such as thiamin, folate, iron, zinc, and niacin.
The authors also point out that these foods — unlike other grain foods like baked goods — are also low in added sugars and fats.
The study is funded by the Grain Foods Foundation, an industry group. Both authors of the study work for consulting firms that provide services to food and beverage companies, including helping the companies communicate the benefits of their products.
While it’s true that many refined grain foods provide these nutrients, they are not the only sources.
However, the typical American diet — heavy on breads, snack foods, pizza, and fast foods — may not contain a wide enough variety of these kinds of foods.
Which is why many refined grain foods are enriched with vitamins and minerals — basically meeting Americans where their diets are at.
“Most people don’t know a lot about nutrition, and if they’re on a really poor-quality diet, they may not get enough of these nutrients,” said Slavin. “So we’ve pretty much decided that we’re going to add nutrients back to refined grains because most people eat those foods on any given day.”
Whole grains vs. refined grains
Although you might get a boost of vitamins and minerals from your morning bowl of enriched cereal, you are missing out on the many benefits of whole grains.
To understand why, think about how white flour — one of the most common refined grains — is made.
“Once they’ve removed all the good stuff, they grind the rest into a powder, bleach it, put some synthetic — fake — inorganic vitamins back into it and sell it to you as enriched,” said Dr. David Friedman, author of “Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction.”
Refined is not necessarily the same as “processed.” Wheat is processed into whole wheat flour and oats into rolled oats, but the final products still contain all of the grain’s original nutrients.
White flour is used to make many of the foods that Americans love.
“What do people eat?” said Slavin. “They eat desserts — pies and muffins, and things that are easier made with white flour.”
These foods taste good, but lack the dietary fiber found in whole grain foods.
According to the Mayo Clinic, dietary fiber improves the health of your bowels, lowers “bad” cholesterol levels, helps control your blood sugar levels, and can help you achieve a healthy weight.
A 2016 study by The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health also found that people who ate about four servings of whole grains per day — compared with those who ate few or no whole grains — were 22 percent less likely to die early.
They also had a 23 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and a 20 percent lower risk of cancer.
That’s why when it comes to whole grains vs. refined grains, Slavin offers a simple message — “a better choice is a whole-grain choice.”
It can take a while to adjust to the heartier taste of whole-grain breads and pizza crust, but “once you learn to like whole-grain products, it actually tastes fine,” said Slavin.
There are also other whole-grain options, such as brown rice, quinoa, and oats. And less-common ones like sorghum, triticale, and teff.
Going against the grain
In recent years, grains have gained quite a bit of bad press, with the popularity of books such as “The Paleo Diet,” “Wheat Belly,” and “Grain Brain.”
This has some concerned.
“I find it disheartening how nutritionists, health experts, and authors tell people to completely eliminate whole grains from their diet,” said Friedman. “The latest paleo diet fad has created this unnecessary fear of grains and gluten.”
There are some people who need to avoid gluten, which is found in grains like wheat.
According to the advocacy group Beyond Celiac, an estimated 3 million Americans have celiac disease, and 18 million more are sensitive to gluten. Eating breads, rolls, and cookies that contain gluten will make them sick.
But Friedman says many people may be avoiding grains because of an unfounded fear of gluten.
“For all the rest of you — 90 percent of those reading this — completely boycotting gluten is absolutely not necessary, and doing so is a detriment to your good health,” said Friedman.
Slavin is not comfortable labeling grains as “good” or “bad.”
“They fit into diets in different ways,” she said.
For people trying to lose weight, eating too many grains — especially refined grains — can be a problem because of the extra calories.
But for people who are growing or are active, grains can provide a reliable source of energy.
Still, there’s even wiggle room in the diet when it comes to that.
“Let’s look at athletes — people who need a ton of calories,” said Slavin. “They can adapt and use fats as calories, too. So people are pretty adaptable for energy sources.”