A funny thing happened on the way to Albuquerque for the American Association of Cereal Chemists (AACC) conference and annual meeting that I attended last week. Seated next to me was a lady with a brand spanking new copy of Dr David Perlmutter’s book “Grain Brain”. Throughout the flight I saw her frantically highlighting various passages in the book.
AACC is the premier North American conference on foods focusing particularly on cereals and grains. Attendees from around the world including Finland, France, Germany, S Africa, Japan, UK the US and of course Canada were present. It was an opportune time to catch up with the latest scientific advances in grains and health. Interestingly, one such presentation was by Dr Julie Jones from St Catherine University, Minnesota and her topic was “Grain Brain for Grain Brains: A look at grains and cognition, dementia and mental health”. Dr Jones spent part of her talk addressing Perlmutter’s book and the multiple errors contained therein. True, some facts were correct, but interspersed throughout the book there were glaring errors, false conclusions and in some cases facts that were completely unsupported. If Perlmutter had any scientific integrity, attendees of the conference repeatedly suggested he ought to get his facts correct. For example according to Perlmutter the ideal breakfast is salmon, olive oil and avocados. Try giving that to your two year old on a daily basis! Moreover, how does one find such things in the middle of winter in Timmins, Ontario and at what cost? There is no way the less privileged could afford adherence to such a diet. Furthermore, Perlmutter seem to bemoan the use of fruits like blueberries! How bizarre since the late Joe Joseph PhD of the USDA-ARS group out of the prestigious Tufts University in Boston repeatedly published benefits of consuming the flavonoid-rich blueberries. In fact the recent study in The American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and other Dementias Aug 2012; 27 (5):358 is titled “Eating more berries may reduce cognitive decline in the elderly: flavonoid rich blueberries and strawberries offer the most benefit”. Likewise, Perlmutter suggests that eating his very low fruit and grain carbohydrate diet led to increases in the IQ of children by some remarkable percentage points. But where is the evidence? I could not find anything in the published world supporting this statement. Moreover, Perlmutter suggests that individuals ought to stay in a perpetual state of ketosis for health benefits like preventing Alzheimer’s disease and losing weight. Ask any physician and their response after their initial horror will be to get the individual out of such a state for fear of going into a coma. What is Perlmutter on about?
Jones and many of her scientific colleagues at the conference have spent their entire lives looking at the grains and are understandably exasperated by the false information that is widespread in the media and on the internet. One of the real challenges in this day and age of the internet is now we have millions of so called ‘experts’, but expert they certainly are not! The real experts, unfortunately, have little or no voice (their own fault) and seem to have taken flight and left the centre stage only to have the many false prophets injudiciously espouse their views to an ever hungry audience who don’t question them.
Unlike Perlmutter who continually and falsely claims that grains are bad for us, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that grains are necessary for maintenance of good health. Grains contain vital bioactives like beta glucans, avananthramides, alkylresorcinols, and a number of other phenolics that produce clear and documented health benefits. For example the beta glucans derived from oat and barley are now allowed a specific health claim by regulatory bodies in Canada, the US, Europe and Australia for reduction of cholesterol.
Scientists like our own Dr Nancy Ames from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Manitoba who was chiefly responsible for getting the cholesterol claim for barley is tirelessly working on getting additional health claims for beta glucans, such as reducing post-prandial glucose levels which is probably the main culprit in metabolic syndrome a collection of conditions like high blood pressure, insulin resistance, obesity and cholesterol. Mounting data seems to endorse the health benefits of grains. Study after study indicate that grains significantly reduce diseases of the digestive tract e.g. colon cancer as well as cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and stroke by some 20%.
Perhaps it is not the grains rather the processing of such grains that is the real issue. There again the fault lies not just with the food companies but we as consumers. The food companies only address the audience needs and make money in the process, it is we who encourage the food conglomerates to produce such valueless products for the sake of satisfying our convenience and taste buds. We want the taste, the texture, shelf life, convenience and the food companies comply and mass produce to our specified order. Remember it is the food companies that request our inputs through food sampling trials and questionnaires and produce accordingly. I am not saying that the food companies are totally faultless, for they certainly are but they are producing to satisfy the demand.
Food processing is highly complex process as I learned at the conference. The pressure to maintain the functionality of the foods in terms of quality, preservation of bioactivity, taste, convenience, and appeal is a challenging process. How many would rather chew on some grains as our ancestors did? Now we have extrusion techniques used to produce a variety of products like flakes, clusters and granules that we are so accustomed to. I think one ought to give the food scientist a break and instead try and start demanding quality of foods from the industry in terms of the bioactivity viewpoint e.g. enrichment with bioactives like alkylresorcinols, the beta glucans etc. and be prepared to sacrifice our taste and convenience requirements for better health.
In summary grains play an important role in preservation of health and Perlmutter’s sensational book would by all accounts get an enthusiastic “Two thumbs down” from the late Siskel and Ebert.