Study: School kids eating more whole grains

Jonathan Knutson
Forum News Service

Nutritionists have long emphasized the importance of whole grains in a healthy diet. Now, a new analysis finds that school kids began eating more whole grains after a change in school meal standards.

“There have been many years of effort to encourage children and adults to eat more whole grains,” which is partially reflected in the analysis, said Julie Garden-Robinson, food and nutrition specialist with North Dakota State University extension.

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service and the University of Georgia recently analyzed the foods that 17,016 children aged 5-19 ate between 1994-2014. That time frame reflected USDA’s decision, implemented in the 2012-2013 school year, to require that half of all grain products served to the 30 million kids in the National School Lunch Program be whole grains.

The research found that the percentage of whole grain, relative to total grain consumption, rose from 9.4% in 1994-98 to 13.5% in 2013-14. Before 2013-2014, food served at home to the 17,016 school kids had a higher whole-grain-to-total-grain ratio than foods served at schools. But in 2013–14, the whole-grain-to-total-grain ratio of school foods surpassed other sources, including home-prepared foods.

The analysis couldn’t establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the change in school meal standards and improvement in whole grain intakes. But the results “suggest an association between the whole grain standards for school meals and higher whole grain consumption by schoolchildren,” according to the report.

Researchers also noted that repeated exposure to a food increases an individual’s preference for it, both in the short and long run.

The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in 2015, recommends that all adults eat at least half their grains as whole grains, or three to five servings of whole grains. Even children need two to three servings or more.

Most Americans, both adults and children, fall well short of those recommendations, however, according to studies.

“There’s still more education that’s needed,” Garden-Robinson said.

Confusion over whether a packaged food is whole grain contributes to Americans’ shortfall in whole-grain consumption. For example, foods that say “multi-grain” or “high fiber” may not be a whole-grain product, she said.

USDA recommends, among other things, that shoppers search the label and look for “whole” at the beginning of the ingredients list.

A whole grain contains all edible parts of the grain, including the bran, germ, and endosperm. In contrast to whole grains, refined grains are milled, which strips out the bran and germ — giving them a finer texture and longer shelf life, but also reducing their nutritional value.

Refined grains, among other shortcomings, don’t contain the phytochemicals (naturally occurring plant compounds that can help to ward off disease) found in whole grains, Garden-Robinson said.