Morton Sosland

As a year ends that a lot of people, including many in grain-based foods, would describe as “good riddance,” it may already be too late to list objectives for accomplishment in the new year. Yet, the issue that comes to mind is so important, yet so challenging and so difficult to deal with successfully, that it needs stating as not just a New Year wish but as an object deserving of constant attention. Being sought is either a proven way of accurately measuring the role of specific food nutrients in health or persuading nutrition leaders that claims for the health-related effects, either good or bad, of specific foods are without merit based on present science.

Yes, the goal is to do away with all assertions about what foods are recommended to spur advances in peoples’ health as well as what foods are negatives and cited as the cause of a range of health-related problems like obesity. Sure, the grain-based foods industry has a major stake in getting this done. The industry has suffered numerous setbacks with consumers influenced by the drumbeat declaring products made with whole grain flour superior to those made with enriched wheat flour. Calling the latter a “processed food” in order to discourage its use has not just been insulting but a negative affecting consumers’ attitudes toward all products made with wheat flour.

At long last in the past year acknowledgement spread and then gained professional credibility for the assertion that, as one expert said, “We don’t know how to measure diet or exercise” in terms of their specific benefits for humans. It is Dr. Barnett S. Kramer, director of disease prevention at the National Cancer Institute, who made this statement in leading efforts he has undertaken to remove the many inconsistencies in health-related advice. The only food recommendations truly based on science are that if you eat too many calories you will gain weight, and if you exercise enough you may lose some. But all else in what is rightly called a “cacophony of poorly designed research” needs attention to avoid what Dr. Kramer wisely calls whipsaw literature. An example of the latter was “one week drinking coffee is good for you, and the next week is lethal.”

Hardly anything Dr. Kramer said carried more weight than this: “I can get you any result you want in any observational data set.” Similarly, another respected figure in cancer research posted this question, “Is anything we eat associated with cancer? My answer would be ‘No.’”

As the consequence of such studies well-regarded scientists and researchers have recommended abandoning all such study. Concerns are particularly voiced about the widespread desire for specific answers telling what to eat and avoid as well as how to live a life absent many serious diseases like cancer. The lack of specifics from studies done so far, which are too often designed to produce findings matching the desires of those undertaking the research, spurs questions about calling a halt.

In an article describing many of these issues, The New York Times said Dr. Kramer has not given up on rigorous research producing usable answers to questions about food and relationships to health and disease prevention. “A little more humility” among researchers in interpreting their findings is his suggestion. Such a highly welcome approach toward such an important subject serves to prompt renewed vigor in urging an industry like grain-based foods to take the lead in pressing this sort of thinking in both the scientific community and the government. There would be no better way to start than to press the new administration to study whether it should continue pushing the Dietary Guidelines. These are issued periodically by Washington recommending lifestyles and diets that present-day research opinion would hold of little or no value. What a great way to end 2016 and launch 2017 on a forward trajectory for grain-based foods.