Did you ever think you’d see the day when you could buy whole grain Lucky Charms? Whole grain products are popping up everywhere, enticing us with claims such as ‘whole grain blend,’ ‘harvest wheat,’ and ‘may promote heart health.’
While some claims are regulated by the government, others are no more than creative phrases that any food manufacturer can slap on a label, leading consumers to believe they’re getting far more whole grains than they really are. Take Nabisco’s Harvest Five Grain Wheat Thins – they sound full of wholesome goodness, but they contain only ten percent whole grains. Yet (go figure) the same company’s Multi-Grain Wheat Thins contain 50 percent whole grains.
It’s hard to know if a particular food is helping you meet the recommended three servings of whole grains per day when manufacturers aren’t required to tell you how much whole grain is in a product. So it’s up to the consumer to learn what ‘whole grain’ really means and how to decipher the often misleading uses of the words ‘multi-grain,’ ‘whole grain blend,’ and ‘wheat.’
From Field to Pastry
Grains are actually the seeds of grassy plants such as rye, wheat, corn, rice, oat and barley. Some grains, such as brown rice and corn kernels, are easily recognizable in their whole forms. Sometimes grains are cracked or crushed to reduce cooking time – an example is rolled oats. Grains can be further broken down by milling into flour. Because wheat outperforms most other grains when it comes to making bread, pasta, cookies and pastries, most of the flour on the market is wheat flour.
When manufacturers grind the entire, intact wheat grain, the result is whole wheat flour. Since it retains the bran (outer seed shell) and the germ (nourishment for the seed,) whole wheat flour contains a load of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and other protective substances like sterols, phytochemicals, and lignans. If you remove the bran and germ, what you have left is refined flour – it’s high in carbohydrates and protein, but lacks most of the other valuable nutrients.
To make refined flour appealing to the consumer, manufacturers bleach it, then add back some (but not all) of the B vitamins, and none of the vitamin E, minerals, fiber, or phytonutrients. The result: enriched, bleached, refined white flour. But guess what? This flour is still from the wheat plant, so any product made with it can be called ‘wheat.’ This is why so many refined baked goods have names like ‘Country Wheat Bread,’ or ‘Homestyle Wheat Cracker.’ Even a Krispy Kreme donut could technically be called a wheat donut. When manufacturers use this misleading, yet truthful, ‘wheat’ label on a product, they often add caramel coloring to give the food that wholesome appearance.
What’s So Great About Whole Grains?
There are plenty of reasons to trade your squishy white sandwich bread and sticky white rice for their whole grain counterparts, but one of the most compelling is to protect your heart. Numerous large studies found that people who ate one to three servings a day of whole grains lowered their risk of heart disease by about one third.
In another important area of research, three large, ten-year studies found that people could lower their risk of diabetes by 20 to 30 percent by eating at least three servings of whole grains per day.
But the good news doesn’t stop there. Thanks to the bran layer, whole grains can help boost your fiber intake. Currently, the average American gets only about half of the recommended 32 grams of fiber per day. Increasing fiber intake not only keeps things moving in the bowel, but it may also cut the risk of colon cancer. Though research is conflicting, some studies have shown that people who eat more fiber from whole grains, fruit and vegetables have a lower risk of colon cancer.
And if you’re trying to control your weight, whole grains may help. Studies have shown that when people eat whole grains, they feel full sooner and consume fewer calories.
What The Claims Mean
To figure out how much whole grain a food contains, you often have to read the ingredients list, decipher the claims, and make an educated guess. Here is a guide to the real meaning behind many commonly used claims on food labels.
100% Whole Wheat/Whole Grain. All of the grain used in the product is whole. But don’t use the 100 percent label to justify eating junk food. Sure, a cookie made with 100 percent whole grains is better than one made with refined flour, but it’s still a cookie. The same goes for sugary breakfast cereals.
Made With Whole Grains could mean that the item contains 100 percent whole grain – but then again, it might contain only 25 percent. Ingredients are listed in order of predominance, so if whole grains are listed as the first ingredient, and enriched flour as the second, this tells you is that there are more whole than refined grains in the product. But it doesn’t tell you how much more; the amount of whole grains could range anywhere from 51 to 99 percent. Of course, if you find whole grains listed toward the bottom of the ingredients, you can bet there’s only a trivial amount in the product.
Multi-grain sure sounds healthy, but what matters is not how many different grains the product has, but rather what percentage of them are whole.
Harvest, Country, Wholesome and Homestyle bring to mind scenes of Grandma’s farm, but they really just translate to ‘we hope this sounds healthy so you’ll buy it.’
Whole Grain Blend rarely means ‘a blend of whole grains.’ More often than not, it means ‘a blend of whole and refined grains,’ and companies aren’t required to disclose the percentages of each.
Good (or Excellent) Source of Whole Grains are terms that manufacturers use if a serving of food contains 8 or 16 grams, respectively, of whole grains. But this is actually a small amount when you consider that a serving of food weighs around 30 to 55 grams. Bottom line: foods making these claims can actually contain significantly more refined grains than whole.
May Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease is very different from May Promote Heart Health. The former mentions a disease and is therefore considered a formal health claim. Foods carrying this claim must be at least 51 percent whole grains and be low in fat. But a statement like ‘may promote heart health’ is considered a ‘structure and function’ claim and can unbelievably be used on any food.
What’s Whole and What’s Not
The government’s Dietary Guidelines suggest making ‘make half your grains whole,’ a catchy phrase that
translates to eating about three servings (or ounces) of whole grains each day. Here are some of the whole grains that meet that requirement, and refined grains that don’t. Remember, one of the best ways to get whole grains is to buy the whole, intact seeds and cook them as a hot cereal, side dish or in a casserole.
• wheat ‘berries’ (seeds)
• bulgur (cracked wheat)
• brown rice (and brown rice flour)
• wild rice
• barley (whole, hulled or flaked)
• rye (whole or flaked)
• oats (whole, groats or rolled)
• corn (popcorn, on cob, kernels, whole maize flour)
• ‘wheat’ flour
• white flour
• all purpose flour
• enriched flour
• unbleached flour
• cake flour
• malted barley flour
• cous cous
• rice flour
• pearled barley
• enriched pasta
• refined or degermed corn meal