June 2012 Issue
Deciphering Whole Grain Food Labels — Separating Fact From Fiction
By Lindsey Getz
Vol. 14 No. 6 P. 44
Dietitians discuss the deceptive marketing messages found on whole grain food labels and how to teach clients to read them and make the best food choices for optimal health.
A trip down the bread and cereal aisles nowadays is nothing short of confusing for many clients. Most grocery stores have an entire aisle dedicated to these products, which boast jazzy marketing terms splashed across their packaging, often making it difficult for consumers to know if they’re choosing wisely. Terms such as “whole grain,” “multigrain,” and “fiber” are on countless boxes and packages, but as you know, this doesn’t always mean these products constitute a healthful and nutritious choice.
The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that at least one-half of all grains consumed in a day should be whole grains. Unfortunately, many Americans fall short of this goal. On average, Americans consume 6.4-oz equivalents of grains per day—with only 0.6-oz equivalents of whole grains per day. Part of the problem may be what food industry experts are calling the deception behind whole grain packaging. Consumers may think they’re making a good food choice based on buzzwords they see on the product’s package when in fact the food contains little to no whole grain.
The term “whole grain” is used on a great deal of packaging. And what clients may not know is that the term means the product contains all three portions of the kernel (germ, bran, and endosperm) as well as a minimum of 51% whole grain ingredients by weight per serving. What consumers need to seek—which you’re well aware of—are products that contain 100% whole grain. Finding these products may take a bit of investigative hunting on the part of clients at the grocery store but, the task is worth it to improve overall health.
“When you walk into a grocery store and an entire row is dedicated to just bread, it becomes overwhelming for the consumer,” says Bethany Thayer, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the Academy). “There are so many choices and, oftentimes, the front of the package has so much information on it that it adds to the confusion. You can’t rely on the front of the package to tell you if it’s a good choice; you have to look at the list of ingredients.”
The deception associated with bread labeling has received plenty of press lately as the frustration among consumers increases. Many who reluctantly made the switch from white bread to seemingly whole grain bread—and are paying extra money for what they think is a healthier choice—aren’t happy when they realize their whole grain bread is essentially white bread in disguise.
“Where it gets most confusing is when terms like ‘cracked wheat bread,’ ‘stoneground wheat,’ ‘enriched,’ or even ‘wheat flour’ are used on the packaging,” says Becky Hand, RD, of Sparkpeople.com, a free adult weight management Internet site, and a dietitian at Margaret Mary Community Hospital in Baitesville, Indiana. “These terms essentially mean nothing. The bread could very likely be an enriched white flour bread with some brown coloring and a few crunchy seeds sprinkled in to get the visual look of wheat bread. In reality, it’s just white bread with some makeup on.”
Even more bewildering for many shoppers is the cereal aisle, where even the sugary-coated varieties have the words “whole grain” written on the box. Dietitians say consumers are being misled more than ever as to what constitutes a healthful choice. And Thayer says that with cereal, even the ingredient list can be misleading at first glance. “Manufacturers are able to list a whole grain as their first ingredient because they’re using multiple kinds of sugar,” she explains. “If you look at a traditional sweetened cereal and the first ingredient is a whole grain, it’s quite likely the next three are different kinds of sugar when, if added up, would certainly be more than the whole grain. It’s very tricky. That’s when you also have to look at the nutrient label to be clear on exactly how much added sugar a product contains.”
Simplifying the Process
The Whole Grains Council has attempted to simplify the process of searching for whole grain foods with the introduction of a Whole Grain Stamp. The idea behind its development was to make it easy for shoppers to spot whole grain foods. There are two varieties of the stamp: the Basic Stamp and the 100% Stamp. If a product has received the 100% Stamp, all its grain ingredients are whole grains, and it contains a minimum of 16 g (a full serving) of whole grain. If a product has the Basic Stamp, it has at least 8 g of whole grain, but it also may contain some refined grain.
Judy Caplan, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy, says she encourages her clients to look for products with the 100% Stamp. She likes the idea of using the stamp to narrow down the playing field, but she says you can’t rely on it alone in making nutritious choices. “The Whole Grain Stamp is definitely a good idea,” Caplan says. “It does help consumers to look for that 100% stamp when there are so many products to go through, but it doesn’t take the place of reading the ingredient label. Even if it has whole grains, it can still be full of sugar or have hydrogenated fat. There are other ingredients to consider. If you were only concerned about whole grains, the stamp might be enough, but it’s certainly not the whole picture. Consumers still need to take the time to look at the ingredient list.”
Today’s breads often include quite a few added ingredients that may detract from the bread’s nutrient profile. A bread may be whole grain, but it could still include sweeteners such as sugar or even high-fructose corn syrup to make it taste better or prolong its shelf life. Therefore, as Caplan suggests, consumers must look at the bigger picture.
Vandana Sheth, RD, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy, agrees that clients should start by looking for the stamp but also pay attention to the grams per serving. She says clients must realize that the 8-g serving stamp means they’re only getting one-half of a serving. As it stands, Americans aren’t even getting a full single serving, so it’s important to tell them that the minimum goal is to get three servings of whole grains per day. Choosing products with the 100% Stamp will help fill in the gaps.
Numerous Health Benefits
There are many reasons Americans should start paying closer attention to their whole grain intake. “Studies have shown that when we eat whole grains, we’re lowering our risk for many chronic conditions,” Sheth says. “Some studies show a benefit by including even just one whole grain serving per day, but those benefits are significantly enhanced when we eat at least three servings a day. The bottom line is to increase the intake as much as possible.”
“One of the obvious benefits is to get more fiber, which will help prevent heart disease and stroke,” Caplan adds. “But there are also a lot of trace minerals in whole grains, some of which you might not be getting elsewhere.”
The trace minerals available from whole grain products include magnesium, molybdenum, iron, and selenium, among others. Whole grains also have been shown to decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes. In a 2007 study of more than 160,000 women, those who averaged two to three servings of whole grains per day were 30% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who rarely ate whole grains. When the researchers of this study, published in PLoS, combined these results with those of several other large studies, they found that eating an extra two servings of whole grains per day decreased the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 21%.
RDs can help clients incorporate more whole grains with some simple tips. The first begins at the grocery store. Educate your clients about label reading. Since manufacturers must list their ingredients in descending order, those first few ingredients are key. It’s important that the word “whole” appears on the ingredient list. The first ingredient should be something like “whole wheat flour” or “whole grain rye flour,” depending on the product.
Hand says that when looking at cereal labels, in addition to making sure the word whole appears in front of a specific grain, she also advises clients to consider the “rule of five.” “Try to find something that has 5 g of fiber or more, 5 g of protein or more, and 5 g of sugar or less,” Hand explains. “That’s a tall order and can be hard to find, but you should try to shoot for it.”
Also give clients meal ideas with some whole grain options found outside the bread and cereal aisles. When clients realize there are numerous ways they can get a serving of whole grains, the task of getting at least three per day doesn’t seem so daunting. “A half cup of cooked oatmeal is one serving and easy to do at breakfast,” Caplan suggests. “For lunch, you can have two slices of 100% whole grain bread, and that’s another two servings. Two-thirds cup of buckwheat pasta with dinner is another two servings, and you could have five whole grain crackers as a snack. That’s six servings of whole grain, and it wasn’t that hard to fit in.”
Sheth recommends the following options: brown rice, quinoa, millet, and popcorn. Many consumers are surprised to learn that popcorn makes the list of whole grains. Suggest air-popped popcorn as a healthful snack. “It’s really not that complicated to incorporate more whole grains; it just comes down to simple switches,” Sheth continues. “Any change can feel overwhelming, especially with so many misleading options, but here’s a simple day filled with healthful whole grains: a whole grain cereal or oatmeal for breakfast, a sandwich with a whole grain tortilla or bread, and a side of brown rice, corn, or quinoa with dinner.”
Even desserts can offer some whole grain benefits. Sheth suggests switching to whole wheat flour for baking. “That way you’re getting some benefit while still enjoying something flavorful and tasty,” she says. “And getting kids to eat more whole grains can be easy as well. Kids love wraps, tortillas, and pita bread. Just switch to a whole grain option for these. It’s an easy switch that kids won’t mind, and you’re really enhancing the nutritional benefits.”
Whole wheat or other whole grain pastas also are getting easier to find at the grocery store as more manufacturers have introduced more options. The ingredient list is also much easier to navigate. “Pasta is made from wheat, so you’re basically only looking at one main ingredient,” Hand says. “You just want to make sure it says whole wheat flour or whole wheat semolina flour, and you’re good to go. It’s much easier than the bread aisle.”
However, Thayer says it’s most important to make sure clients have these products in their homes so they can start making healthful substitutions. “If you want to make better choices, the first step is making sure these healthier products are actually available in your house,” she says. “That obviously starts at the grocery store. Encourage clients to stock their pantries and shelves with whole grain noodles. Switch out all your traditional foods with a whole grain option: regular pasta for whole grain pasta, brown rice instead of white, and plenty of whole grain breads and cereals to choose from. Then when you reach for a healthful whole grain to cook with, the healthier choice is available.”
— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pennsylvania.
Tell clients to watch out for these words that appear on product labels. Manufacturers use them to make their products sound healthier than they really are. But these words aren’t a definite indication the product is 100% whole grain.
• Cracked wheat
• Wheat or wheat flour
• Whole grain
The following words never describe whole grains:
• Enriched flour
• Wheat germ
What About White Whole Wheat?
Do you have clients who love enriched flour white bread? Suggest they buy white whole wheat, which offers the nutritional benefits of traditional whole wheat with a milder taste, softer texture, and lighter color. White whole wheat flour is being used to make bread, crackers, and baking mixes, and many consumers seem to prefer the taste.
Unlike refined white flour, white whole wheat flour contains all three components of the wheat—the bran, germ, and endosperm—making it a true whole grain product. But unlike traditional red wheat that has a darker color, white whole wheat is a sort of “albino wheat” that’s light in color and more closely resembles the refined white flour most consumers like. The milder flavor results because white whole wheat doesn’t contain the strong-in-flavor phenolic compounds found in red wheat.
For many who are accustomed to the taste of refined flour, white whole wheat can be an easier switch, says Becky Hand, RD, of Sparkpeople.com and a dietitian at Margaret Mary Community Hospital in Baitesville, Indiana. “For picky eaters, including kids, who don’t like the taste of regular whole wheat bread, whole wheat white bread could be a good option,” she says. “Just be sure to read the ingredients label and nutrition facts to make sure you’re really getting 100% whole wheat flour—not white flour with some whole grains added.”
To ensure clients get the healthful white whole wheat, urge them to look for the word “whole” on the ingredient list. Remind them: If the product says only “white wheat,” it’s not the same as white whole wheat.
Know Your Grains
As a dietitian, you’re well aware that there are several whole grain varieties available. But your clients may think they have to eat more wheat or brown rice to get their daily whole grain intake. The truth is, the more variety they get, the better. Today’s Dietitian created the following list highlighting some examples of whole grains clients can eat. Any of these grains, when consumed in a form that includes the bran, germ, and endosperm, are considered whole grain foods and flours.
Barley has more uses than in a bowl of soup. It can be served as a side dish, baked in bread, or used in flour form to make cakes and cookies. Barley is also the highest in fiber of all the whole grains.
Often known for its use in pancake mixes, buckwheat, which isn’t actually part of the cereal family, has a nutty flavor and is the only grain known to have high levels of the antioxidant rutin. It also provides a high level of protein, second only to oats.
Most people don’t realize—or may forget—that corn is a whole grain. Whether it’s corn on the cob, popcorn, corn cakes, tortillas, or polenta, corn is a whole grain known for its sweet flavor.
Most of the oats in this country are steamed and flattened to produce “old-fashioned” or quick and instant oats. One thing unique to oats is the fact they almost never have their bran and germ removed in processing. If clients see oats or oat flour on the ingredient list, they’ll know it’s almost always a whole grain.
This small and round grain is getting increased attention among consumers. It’s packed with protein and can be added to soups, salads, and baked goods or served as a side dish.
Many clients already know they should make the switch from refined white rice to whole grain brown rice, but many don’t realize that whole grain rice also can be black, purple, or red. Rice happens to be one of the most easily digested grains, ideal for those on a restricted diet or who are gluten intolerant.
Also called milo, sorghum isn’t well known among consumers. That’s largely because it’s primarily used for livestock feed in this country. However, sorghum recently has received increased attention for its gluten-free benefits. Clients can substitute sorghum for wheat flour and incorporate it into casseroles, pizzas, pastas, and baked goods.
— Source: The Whole Grains Council