Is Their Truth in 'Grain Brain' or a Misleading Brain Drain?

Published on October 17, 2013 by Dr. Traj Nibber

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, 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.

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.

What do you think of this suggested diet? Have your say in the comment section below.

Image by ©2014 LoloStock via DollarPhotoClub

  • Susan

    I absolutely agree with Dr.Nibber. I heard the CBC interview with the Dr. who wrote the book Grain Brain. I was shocked at the lack of clinical evidence. However, a reality in North America is: That most people eat far to many processed grains: example: wake up and have a processed Cereal (you know the ones I mean) then maybe a muffin (processed)for a morning snack or some other white flour snack. Maybe a burger, pizza, salad with bread for lunch. And it goes on throughout the day. All these processed; what were once grains' most definitely would have a bad affect on the whole human system. Eating sprouted grains, organic whole grains, a few times per week. Or even once per day is healthy. It is unfortunate that people will go out, buy this book and put themselves on a strict diet and maybe feel fine for a short period of time, and then they potentially can create some more negative issues for themselves.

  • Tony

    While I am unfamiliar with the book Grain Brain, I have read Dr William Davis' book Wheat Belly. I am not a bio-chemist and Dr. Davis is cardiologist. I found his book to be tightly argued but that is from a layman's perspective.

    Davis provides solid evidence of the problems with wheat and perhaps grains generally.

    Does Davis have this wrong? If so, I would be interested in what he got wrong?

    • Traj Nibber

      I am not familiar with Dr Davis' research or his book. However, at last year's annual cereal chemist (mostly all scientists) meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico the overwhelming consensus was that grains do offer an excellent opportunity to large proportion of the people around the world to improve the major challenges in health and disease including obesity, metabolic syndrome and cancer among others.

      Cereals by nature are full of highly active ingredients including beta glucans, aventhramides, fiber (soluble and insoluble) and other micro and macronutrients. There was significant frustration expressed by these scientists that the media and particularly celebrity "experts" like Dr Oz, and Dr Mercola among others do not represent the truth about cereals. In addition none of these so called experts are really experts in the grain sciences and that the media ought to talk to the scientists themselves.

      Use of cereals and grains of course means we should of course choose wisely and demand more products from the industry that deliver higher content of such bioactives. One problem the scientist and the industry continually lament is that the demand from the public is for easy to use, inexpensive and better tasting products which unfortunately are not always easily achieved. On one hand the public demands all these and on the other they are unwilling to sacrifice taste.

  • B

    This is an opinion piece, where I was expecting to see critical evaluations of the science.
    You recommend that Dr. Perlmutter get his facts straight.
    And how many facts did you get wrong? And yet with just two clicks I can find out that Dr. Perlmutter recommends blueberries
    And if you gave your two year old salmon, avocados, olives everyday, they would be used to it, think it is delicious and have a great start in life. And it is affordable because they won't be hungry in one hour and have to eat again.
    In Timmons, they ice fish in winter. And they fish in summer too, filling their freezers. And if they don't fish, they have family and friends that do, and hunt for wild meat, also high in omega 3's.

    Those "cereal experts" that you quote "opinion" of, are experts in cereals. Not experts in health, epidemiology or the immune system.
    All people respond to eating grains with a blood sugar spike. Not good. A large portion of people (40%) have an abnormal autoimmune response to multiple components in cereals and some become deathly ill leading to a shortening of life expectancy by 20 years. (Dr. Hadjivassiliou, Dr. Murray, Dr. Fasano and Dr. Vodjani are all reputable researchers in the field).
    The illness from grains is a public health crisis.

    Please give us unbiased critical analysis.

    • Traj Nibber

      Yes, of course it is an opinion piece however, somewhat different to Dr Perlmutter's book which is for purely commercial purposes. I do not know the researchers you mentioned. Full name would be useful. However, if Dr Vodjani is the same as the occasional contributor to the Townsend newsletter and Dr Murray is Michael Murray both are not researchers in the true sense of the word. The have got skin in the game so to say. The former is an owner of a company and, the latter works for Natural Factors and previously he was consultant for Enzymatic Therapy. So they are hardly researchers as you say. Show me the actual scientific papers they have published as an original piece of research in peer reviewed scientific journals and I don’t mean opinion pieces in trade magazines or books. A scientific researcher is someone who publishes a body of original work in a specific area and is acknowledged by his peers as a researcher. On that account neither of the above two would qualify as researchers. They are at best high profile media celebrities as is Dr Perlmutter.

      Getting back to the posted article and contents, if you recall I specifically mentioned Dr Perlmutter saying in his book that breakfast of salmon, avocados and olives. I've never been fishing but doubt that salmon is caught during ice fishing nor that it is convenient catching fish or having neighbours catching on one's behalf that is just bizarre and highly impractical. Second, Dr Perlmutter specifically went on Dr Oz's show few months ago and mentioned not to consume blueberries due to the sugar content as he does in his book. He may have revised his website after receiving so much criticism on the issue.
      Finally, you say that the attendees present at the conference are just cereal scientists, there again you are wrong as scientists from all disciplines were represented including immunology, cardiology, metabolic syndrome, cancer specialists among others. Moreover, this is an international conference one of its type so included scientists from various disciplines from over forty countries.
      You also seem to have missed the point of the article namely that grains have in the past and even now offer an excellent opportunity to increase content of fiber, protein, and other bioactives including avenanthramides, alkylresorcinols, beta-glucans and so on because of the practicality and wide availability. All these have significant body of scientific data supporting health benefits. Including stimulating immunity, reducing cancer of various types including colon, pancreatic, stomach etc. and having cardiovascular benefits.

      The article isn't suggesting that we just load ourselves with the wrong type of grain e.g. processed white flour (devoid of much of the bioactives) nor should we ignore other food types like right type of fats and proteins, rather one should supplement ones diet with proper healthy grains like sorghum, buckwheat, quinoa, etc. with maximal amount of bioactives with reduced glycemic index and a higher fiber content. A Canadian company is working on achieving just that.

      I would go and find out from real experts, actual scientists, any day rather than so called celebrity scientists for my own health.

  • Ania

    I just wanted to know what your stance was on phytic acid in grains. Grains treated to remove phytic acid are supposed to have a higher bioavailability of minerals, but I'm still doing research. So far I've found rat studies, and in vitro studies, but I don't think these can mimic perfectly how the human body functions. The claims are that phytic acid acts as a chelator and pulls minerals out of the human intestine if not treated with soaking/sprouting/fermentation. Supposedly this is what old-fashioned/traditional cultures did before we mass-produced food. Others argue that possibly the gut bacteria adapt and produce the enzyme phytase to break it down and help with mineral absorption. Since I'm still in school and learning to find/evaluate relevant studies, I wanted the opinion of someone who regularly does research for help on this topic.

    • Traj Nibber

      Thank you Ania for your comments. You are correct phytic acid in grains does present a problem and does reduce bioavailability of various minerals like zinc, calcium, iron etc.
      Various cultures have utilized adding flours of various grains to improve bioavailability e.g. in typical rural Nigeria where plantain flour is supplemented with okara seed flour to improve bioavailability of minerals possibly due to natural inhibitory properties in okara seeds to inhibit phytase. Of course addition of phytase also improves mineral bioavailability. Traditional processing of foods e.g. fermentation degraded phytic acid. See an excellent review article by Troesch B, et-al "Absorption studies show that phytase from Aspergillus niger significantly increases iron and zinc bioavailability from phytate-rich foods.
      Food Nutr Bull. 2013 Jun;34:S90-101.

      Thank you

  • Tali Deals

    Thank you Dr Nibber. You are absolutely correct. I am currently watching a PBS re-run of his show and I find it terrible that he is against eating grains especially since meta-analysis of so many studies have shown whole grains to decrease cholesterol, BP and heart disease. A Recent study shows also most people with IBS are not gluten sensitive at all and that its a non-IgE mediated sensitivity. .....Basically its not the gluten that causes all the issues unless u do actually have celiacs disease or gluten -sensivity.
    Lucky the fats he recommends are healthier ones.

  • Nick Wellinghoff

    The big question is why PBS is pushing this infomercial. I find it unacceptable. "Public" television has a responsibility to provide information in a informative and trusted manner. Especially in matters of science. We all understand that they need to raise money. But selling Brain Drain hook line and sinker to the general public with no disclaimer is not what we expect from PBS , our last consistent source of quality educational programming (NOVA etc.) . PBS should strongly consider not using this pseudo science "late night" infomercial or at the very least prefix it with a strong disclaimer about its scientific merit.

    Nick Wellinghoff
    Austin, TX