Whole Grains Are Better, But Refined Grains Aren’t Bad

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The federal government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that half your daily grain intake be from high-fiber whole-grain sources, foods like brown rice, oatmeal and whole-wheat bread. Nutritionists often exhort people to choose whole grains over refined ones whenever they can.

But according to one leading nutrition researcher, Julie Miller Jones, a professor emeritus at St. Catherine University, we shouldn’t be so eager to throw out refined grains altogether. Refined grains do have some benefits — namely, nutrients added to refined flours.

Speaking at a symposium at the Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting in New Orleans, Jones noted that since folic acid was added to bread, cereal and other grains in 1999, the rate of newborns with neural tube defects — a known consequence of folic acid deficiency — has decreased 46%. Additionally, Jones said, important nutrients like copper and iron are more easily absorbed when eaten with refined grains. Whole grains are healthy because they’re so high in fiber, which Americans don’t get enough of, but that fiber also fast-tracks food through the digestive system, absorbing nutrients along the way.

Of course, the issue is not that people are eating too few refined or processed grains. The real problem is that Americans on average get too little fiber and too many refined grains. The USDA recommends that adults get 21 to 38 grams of fiber per day and that children get 19 to 38 grams, but 95% of Americans (both adults and children) get only 15 grams of fiber per day.

“Fiber is a shortfall nutrient, so we need to increase it across the board,” said Joanne Slavin, a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota, at the same conference.