A loud hurrah, a baited breath and wondering why they are still saying that are the three choices grain-based foods has in reacting initially to the release of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Issued early in January, the new Guidelines maintain recommended consumption of grain-based foods at six servings (mainly one ounce) per day, at least half of which should be whole grain and the other half enriched grain foods. As in previous recommendations, whole grain products are favored. Prompting celebration is slightly less denigration of “refined grains” and the new, but well deserved language boosting “enriched grains” for their nutrients and folic acid content deemed to fit the oft-stated goals “to promote health, prevent chronic disease and help people reach and maintain a healthy weight.”

While the changes in grain-based foods are minimal, any deserved cheering reflects the omission of approaches that had appeared in an earlier release of possible revisions that resulted from deliberations of a scientific advisory committee. That committee was inclined to sharpen the assault on “refined grains,” a word combination that has become anathema to the industry. In pushing for revisions meant to reduce overweight, the preliminary report had stressed total dietary approaches like Paleo and Mediterranean that would cut out snack-related items that have a major position in the market. The final report does favor such approaches but with less weight given to eating certain foods and cutting back or not eating others.

As a work of the federal government, issued jointly by the Departments of Agriculture and of Health and Human Services, the Dietary Guidelines have an immediate effect in requiring that the millions of children participating in school breakfast and school lunch programs abide by the recommendations. Efforts also are being made, and may increase, to assure that participants in food stamp and other special feeding programs financed by the government reflect these same recommendations, thus stirring demand for whole grain products by federal rules. Just how much of this product is actually consumed by school age children who do not prefer whole grain is a source of controversy in just how well the Guidelines themselves are achieving goals. Overweight problems provide the nexus for much of the arguing about the Guidelines.

Indeed, it is recognition that the 2015 Guidelines running to 2020 are the eighth to be issued in a program begun in 1980 that prompts the less enthusiastic reaction. Except for the parts of the food industry most positively impacted, like egg and fish producers regarding protein and cholesterol, and those negatively affected by new recommendations for less consumption, like sweeteners, the food industry itself is best described as ho-hum. This explains why grain-based foods associations, all part of the Wheat Chain collaboration, are pleased that changes appear relatively minor. Much effort went into assuring this outcome at the Washington level. After all, it is difficult to trace eating trends in any product to these efforts.

Any satisfaction needs a serious re-think when the comments of the main Guideline critics are studied. Critics generally favor major shifts in what Americans eat in order to end overweight problems, which they claim have been worsened by the failures of the Guidelines in many past efforts. Much of this criticism takes the 2015-2020 version to task for not singling out “refined grains” in ways (including a period of not eating a single grain food) that would devastate the grain-based foods industry. Promoted mainly by professors at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the allegation is made that obesity stems from eating too much high glycemic foods like refined grains, sugar and other processed carbohydrates. They contend that conventional wisdom on weight loss is wrong and counter-productive. Their goal is to force reduced consumption of the “high carbohydrate” diet. This is where grain-based foods needs to center its attention immediately in order to be sure that this disastrous approach does not reach beyond academia.