Whole grains, refined grains, and cancer risk: A systematic review of meta-analyses of observational studies

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46 Scopus citations


PubMed, Web of Science, and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews were searched for meta-analyses that provided risk estimates (±95% confidence intervals) for associations between intakes of whole and refined grains and risk of total and site-specific cancer. The preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses (PRISMA) guidelines were followed. Only meta-analyses that included whole grains and refined grains as separate food groups, and not as part of dietary patterns, were included. A total of 17 publications were identified that met inclusion criteria. Within these, results from a total of 54 distinct meta-analyses were reported for whole grains and 5 meta-analyses for refined grains. For total cancer mortality, 7 meta-analyses of cohort studies indicated that whole grain intake was associated with 6% to 12% lower risk in comparison of highest vs. lowest intake groups, and 3% to 20% lower risk for doses ranging from 15 to 90 g/day. For site-specific cancers, meta-analyses indicated that whole grain intake was consistently associated with lower risks of colorectal, colon, gastric, pancreatic, and esophageal cancers. Limited data were available for refined grains, with only 4 publications providing risk estimates, and only 1 of the meta-analyses included more than 3 studies. High intake of refined grains was associated with increased risk of colon and gastric cancer. By contrast, in the only dose-response meta-analysis, each 90 g/day consumption of refined grains was associated with a 6% lower risk of total cancer. In addition to the limited number of published meta-analyses on refined grains, results were also weakened due to the fact that refined grains were frequently defined to include both staple grain foods and indulgent grain foods, and the majority of studies included in the meta-analyses provided no specific definition of refined grains. Overall, meta-analyses of cohort and case-control studies consistently demonstrate that whole grain intake is associated with lower risk of total and site-specific cancer, and support current dietary recommendations to increase whole grain consumption. By contrast, the relationship between refined grain intake and cancer risk is inconclusive.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number3756
Pages (from-to)1-23
Number of pages23
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2020


  • Case-control
  • Cereals
  • Chronic disease
  • Cohort
  • Diet
  • Epidemiology
  • Fiber
  • Mortality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Food Science
  • Nutrition and Dietetics


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