“Bread is constantly getting attacked” as not being nutrient dense, offering empty calories or contributing to weight gain, said Yanni Papanikolaou, vice president of Nutritional Strategies, Inc.
But, he told FoodNavigator-USA, research he helped conduct and presented at Experimental Biology in San Diego in early April showed that even though consumption of grain based foods is associated with higher energy intake throughout the day, it was not correlated with higher body mass index scores or weight.
Papanikolaou acknowledged the finding based on data from the National Healthy & Nutrition Examination Survey surprised him.
“We expected to see some weight gain or BMI increase among the people who consumed grain products frequently, but we didn’t see that,” he said.
Rather, the research revealed adults who ate predominately grain foods consumed as much as 300-400 calories more than those who did not eat grains, but overall did not have larger waist circumferences or higher BMI scores than people who did not eat grains.
Indeed, Papanikolaou said, some grain eating patterns were associated with lower weights than the grain free pattern.
“Adults we saw who consumed pasta, cooked cereal and rice were 7.2 pounds lighter than those in the no grain group and 1.2 inches smaller waist circumferences,” he said.
“Even when the grains were in cakes, cookies and pies we did not see any increase or decrease in the weight variables,” he said. Although he cautioned this only held true for one serving from this category and as soon as an additional serving was consumed there was a spike up.
“No one is ever going to say cakes, cookies and pies are associated with positive weight outcomes, but now we have data that shows you can add some cake, a cookie or pie without feeling guilty, provided it is done in a healthy way and combined with physical activity,” he added.
He also was quick to point out that the research is observational and therefor a cause and effect relationship cannot be established.
Grains provide shortfall nutrients
The research also could discredit another common claim that grains provide empty calories or are low in nutrients, Papanikolaou said.
“Another thing I hear all the time is that people don’t eat bread because it is not nutrient dense, it is high in sodium and some cases even high in sugar,” Papanikolaou said.
But again, analysis of NHANES data show that bread, rolls and tortillas as one category contribute only 1.9 grams of total sugar to the total diet of children who eat them compared to those who do not, which is equivalent to less than half a teaspoon, Papanikolaou said.
Likewise, bread, rolls and tortillas contributed 7.7% and 7.2% of sodium to the daily diet of American children and grains overall contributed only 15.9% of daily values of sodium, according to the research.
Papanikolaou added that bread, rolls and tortillas also are meaningful contributors of at least 10% of daily dietary fiber, thiamin, folate, iron, zinc and niacin in American children. Even refined grains contributed to shortfall nutrients, he said.
In addition, consumption of salty snacks and crackers was associated in children with not only a higher intake of fiber and nutrients of desire, but also with higher fruit intake and an overall better diet, Papanikolaou said.
With this in mind he said, as long as people restrict nutrients to limit, such as added sugar and saturated fat, grain foods can provide meaningful nutrient contributions to the diet.
The findings Papanikolaou and his co-researchers uncovered are a good starting point for identifying how Americans eat grains and how they influence the diet, but additional research is necessary to better understand how they compare to potential confounding factors.
For example, Papanikolaou said he would love to conduct modeling analysis of bread to find out what exactly is in it and how it contributes to the diet by itself.
“A lot of times, I think bread is judged by the friends it hangs out with, such as high fat spreads, high added-sugar spreads. But what if a sandwich has lean roasted chicken, avocado and mustard? Then the bread becomes a vehicle, which is nutrient dense on its own, for transporting other nutritious foods,” he said.
Papanikolaou added that some of the research he and his colleagues presented earlier this month is awaiting publication in peer-reviewed journals, at which point it likely will serve as the foundation for other researchers’ work.