March 22, 2023

Whole grains or no grains? Food labels can be misleading

Food labels contain a wealth of information: calories, serving size, and the amounts of fat,...

Food labels contain a wealth of information: calories, serving size, and the amounts of fat, sugar, vitamins, and fiber contained in a food, among other things. But do consumers know how to effectively use this information? A recent study showed that some consumers are struggling, especially when it comes to understanding whole grains.

Recent study highlights consumer confusion

For the study, published in Public Health Nutrition, researchers conducted two experiments to examine consumer understanding of whole grains on food labels. The research, which focused on food labels on bread, cereal, and crackers, was done online and involved more than 1,000 adults.

In the first experiment, researchers displayed pairs of products with different amounts of whole grains (based on the ingredients list and fiber content), sugar, and salt on mocked-up Nutrition Facts panels. One of the products contained a good amount of whole grains but made no claims on the front of the package. The other product had less overall whole grains, but sold itself with terms like “multigrain” or “wheat” on the front of the package. Results showed that 29{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} to 47{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} of study participants incorrectly identified the less healthy product as the better option.

The second experiment used actual food labels and asked the study participants to identify which products had 100{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} whole grain, mostly whole grain, or little to no whole grain. About half of the study participants (43{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} to 51{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36}) overstated the amount of whole grains in the products that were mostly refined grains. For another product, composed mainly of whole grains, 17{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} of the consumers understated the whole grain content.

The study concluded that consumers have difficulty identifying the healthfulness and the whole-grain content of some packaged foods, and that they rely on whole-grain labeling on the front of the package rather than considering information from the Nutrition Facts label and the ingredients list.

Why should we eat whole grains?

Whole grains refer to the entire grain kernel, including the bran, germ, and endosperm. The process of refining grains removes most of the bran and germ, leaving the endosperm (white flour). Each component of the whole grain contributes different nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other health-promoting compounds.

Whole grains offer a complete package of health benefits, unlike refined grains, which are stripped of valuable nutrients in the refining process. Studies show that they decrease our risk for several chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and death from any cause.

Whole grains are also a rich source of vitamins and minerals. Compared to enriched white flour, 100{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} whole wheat flour contains: 96{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} more vitamin E, 82{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} more vitamin B6, 80{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} more selenium, 78{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} more magnesium, 72{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} more chromium, 58{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} more copper, 52{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} more zinc, and 37{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} more folate.

Hulled barley, bulgur, whole-grain couscous, oats, rye, spelt, triticale, and whole wheat are all whole grains. Gluten-free whole grains include amaranth, brown rice, buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa, teff, and wild rice.

Tips for selecting whole grain products

Don’t rely on front-of-the-package marketing. Just because the package shows a photo of a beautiful wheat field does not necessarily mean its contents are made with a whole grain. Even packages that say “multigrain,” “wheat,” “double fiber,” “cracked wheat,” “7 grain,” “stone ground,” “enriched,” “fortified,” or “made with whole grains” may be mostly enriched white flour.

Do not assume that darker is better. Products that are darker in color are not necessarily whole grains. Ingredients such as molasses or caramel coloring may have been used to impart color.

Check the ingredients list. The relative amount of whole grain in the food can be gauged by the placement of the grain in the ingredients list. The whole grain should be the first ingredient — or the second ingredient, after water. For foods with multiple whole-grain ingredients, they should appear near the beginning of the ingredients list. Choose foods that list “whole” or “whole grain” before the grain’s name, such as whole rye flour, whole wheat flour, or whole buckwheat.

Know what the labels really mean

If the label says…The product contains…
100{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} whole grainNo refined flour
Made with whole grainsMay contain a little or a lot of whole grains
Whole grainAs little as 51{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} whole grain flour
Good source of whole grain15{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} to 25{81fee095584567f29e41df59d482e70712cfc555e382220efc71af2368c27a36} whole grain
MultigrainA mixture of grains, possibly all or mostly refined grains

Look at the Nutrition Facts label

The amount of fiber listed on the food label can provide a helpful clue to a food’s whole grain content. When selecting a product, choose breads that contain at least 3 grams of fiber per serving, cereals that have at least 5 grams of fiber per serving, and crackers that contain at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.

But don’t focus solely on whole grains. When trying to improve your diet, use food labels to guide you toward products with less sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar as well.

The post Whole grains or no grains? Food labels can be misleading appeared first on Harvard Health Blog.