For years we have heard of the benefits of eating whole grains, and as we walk the aisles of our local markets, you can see that manufacturers have heard the same thing. A quick trip down the bread aisle in my local supermarket today revealed that only a few of the products do not contain some kind of label touting the item as "whole grain," "whole wheat," or "made from whole grains."
But do these labels tell the whole truth? Sadly, a new study conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and published in the journal Public Health Nutrition indicates that they often do not.
What does "whole grain" actually mean?
To understand the answer to this question, you have to know a bit about grains themselves, and the three parts that make up any grain. These consist of the bran or outer layer of the grain (high in fiber, iron, and magnesium), the germ or heart of the grain (a good source of essential fatty acids, B vitamins, and vitamin E), and the endosperm, which provides the bulk of any grain and is a source of protein and carbohydrates, but is low in vitamins and minerals.
For a food to be labeled as "whole grain," technically it should contain all three parts – bran, germ, and endosperm. In the United States, the Whole Grains Council has developed a stamp that, when affixed to food products, supposedly certifies that they provide at least 8 grams of 100% whole grains per serving. This Whole Grain Stamp has become an industry standard, but the Harvard study found that it can often be misleading, because products identified with this stamp were often higher in both sugar and calories than products without it.
This problem is compounded by confusing FDA packaging regulations that create other categories of products that can use the term "whole grain" on their labels. First, if a whole grain is listed as the first ingredient on the package (meaning that the percentage by weight of this ingredient is the highest in the product), it can call itself "whole grain." Any product with a whole grain as its first ingredient and no added sugars in the next three ingredients can also use the label "whole grain." Manufacturers are also free to include the word "whole" before any grain in a list of ingredients if it really is 100% whole grain. And products that meet the "10:1 ratio" (a carbohydrate-to-fiber ratio of less than 10 to 1) can call itself "whole grain." But do any of these distinctions really mean that the products are healthy when they appear on our supermarket shelves?
What the new study found
The HSPH study is the first to empirically evaluate the healthfulness of whole grain foods based on all five commonly used industry and government definitions. The researchers investigated a total of 545 grain products – breads, bagels, cereals, crackers, English muffins, cereal bars, granola bars, and chips, ascertaining their nutritional content, their ingredient lists, and whether or not they carried the Whole Grain Stamp on their packages.
What they found was that the products carrying this stamp were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats than other products, but also were significantly higher in sugar and calories than products without the stamp. Three of the other four criteria were also found to have mixed performance in the overall nutrition value of the researched items, and only the American Heart Association's "10:1 ratio" was found to be an accurate indicator of the food's overall healthfulness. Products that met this requirement did tend to be higher in fiber, lower in trans fats, sugar, sodium, and calories than products that did not meet the requirement.
On a governmental and regulatory level, the results of this study may be of use, helping agencies to provide better and more accurate labeling standards. Senior study author Steven Gortmaker says, "Our results will help inform national discussions about product labeling, school lunch programs, and guidance for consumers and organizations in their attempts to select whole grain products."
But for the rest of us – we consumers trying to decide which products to buy in the market – these results tend to add only more confusion to an already confusing situation. We do know that terms like "multigrain" and "whole meal" don't mean that a product is really made from "whole grains." But do we continue to look for the Whole Grain Stamp, now that we know that it says nothing about the relative amounts of sugar and calories in the product, and that they may, in fact, be higher than products without the stamp?
The best we can hope for is what the study authors hope for: that their study will force more realistic labeling standards. Until that happens, we will have to continue to read the rest of the information on ingredient amounts to make sure that the product touted as "whole grain" is really good for us.