Foods labeled ‘whole grain’ may not be healthy

January 16, 2013

Current standards for classifying foods as “whole grain” are inconsistent and, in some cases, misleading, according to a new study by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers. The study appears in Public Health Nutrition.

There is currently no single standard for defining a product as a “whole grain.” The researchers assessed five different industry and government guidelines for whole grain products:

  • The Whole Grain Stamp, a packaging symbol for products containing at least 8 g of whole grains per serving (created by the Whole Grain Council, a non-governmental organization supported by industry dues)
  • Any whole grain as the first listed ingredient (recommended by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s MyPlate and the Food and Drug Administration’s Consumer Health Information guide)
  • Any whole grain as the first ingredient without added sugars in the first three ingredients (also recommended by USDA’s MyPlate)
  • The word “whole” before any grain anywhere in the ingredient list (recommended by USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010)
  • The “10:1 ratio,” a ratio of total carbohydrate to fiber of less than 10 to 1, which is approximately the ratio of carbohydrate to fiber in whole wheat flour (recommended by the American Heart Association’s 2020 Goals)

From two major U.S. grocers, the researchers identified a total of 545 grain products in eight categories: breads, bagels, English muffins, cereals, crackers, cereal bars, granola bars, and chips. They collected nutrition content, ingredient lists, and the presence or absence of the Whole Grain Stamp on product packages from all of these products.

They found that grain products with the Whole Grain Stamp, one of the most widely-used front-of-package symbols, were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, but also contained significantly more sugar and calories compared to products without the Stamp. The three USDA recommended criteria also had mixed performance for identifying healthier grain products. Overall, the American Heart Association’s standard (a ratio of total carbohydrate to fiber of less than 10:1) proved to be the best indicator of overall healthfulness. Products meeting this ratio were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, sugar, and sodium, without higher calories than products that did not meet the ratio.

“Given the significant prevalence of refined grains, starches, and sugars in modern diets, identifying a unified criterion to identify higher quality carbohydrates is a key priority in public health,” said first author Rebecca Mozaffarian, Project Manager in the Dept. of Social and Behavioral Sciences at HSPH.

In a rebuttal to the study, the Whole Grain Council stressed the stamp is reliable and truthful. “We believe so passionately in the reliability and value of the Whole Grain Stamp that we feel compelled to point out several issues with this study,” said the statement. “The Whole Grain Stamp reliably and truthfully labels products containing a significant amount of whole grain. When the Whole Grain Stamp was created in 2005, our intent was to promote truth in whole grain labeling and that is what we are still doing today. The stamp was designed to denote the whole grain content of products and nothing more, and it has always been represented as such.

In addition, the Whole Grain Council pointed to several inaccuracies in the study, including the fact the study’s definition of a “whole grain ingredient” was based on an outdated and inaccurate list of 29 ingredients (including bran, psyllium husk, etc.) that is no longer supported by the USDA or in line with FDA policy.

Study (pdf)

Whole Grain Council statement