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The Truth About Whole Grains: How to Avoid Misleading Food Labels

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Consumers are Confused by Whole Grain Labeling

Food labels contain a plethora of information on calories, serving size, fat, sugar, vitamins, and fiber. But, a recent study suggests that some consumers are struggling, particularly with understanding whole grains. According to research published in Public Health Nutrition, consumers may have difficulty identifying the healthfulness and the whole-grain content of some packaged foods, relying on whole-grain labeling on the front of the package rather than considering information from the Nutrition Facts label and the ingredients list.

The study involved two experiments that examined consumer understanding of whole grains on food labels, focusing on bread, cereal, and crackers. In the first experiment, researchers displayed pairs of products with different amounts of whole grains, sugar, and salt on mocked-up Nutrition Facts panels. The second experiment used actual food labels and asked study participants to identify which products had 100% whole grain, mostly whole grain, or little to no whole grain. Results showed that participants had difficulty identifying the healthfulness and the whole-grain content of some packaged foods.

When it comes to understanding whole grains, consumers may be misled by certain terms on the front of the package, such as "multigrain" or "wheat." The study found that participants incorrectly identified the less healthy product as the better option in 29% to 47% of cases when the package used such labeling terms. It also found that around half of the participants overstated the amount of whole grains in the products that were mostly refined grains. For another product composed mainly of whole grains, 17% of consumers understated the whole-grain content.

The Importance of Eating Whole Grains

Whole grains are an essential part of a healthy diet, as they provide a variety of nutrients that are important for maintaining good health. Unlike refined grains, whole grains are not stripped of their valuable nutrients during the refining process.

Eating whole grains can decrease the risk of several chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and death from any cause. Whole grains are also a rich source of vitamins and minerals. For example, 100% whole wheat flour contains significantly more vitamin E, vitamin B6, selenium, magnesium, chromium, copper, zinc, and folate than enriched white flour.

There are many different types of whole grains, including hulled barley, bulgur, whole-grain couscous, oats, rye, spelt, triticale, and whole wheat. Additionally, there are several gluten-free whole grains, such as amaranth, brown rice, buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa, teff, and wild rice.

Incorporating a variety of whole grains into your diet is an easy and delicious way to ensure you're getting the nutrients your body needs to maintain optimal health.

Tips for Purchasing Whole Grain Foods

Selecting whole grain products can be tricky, as many food manufacturers use marketing tactics that make their products appear healthier than they actually are. Here are some tips to help you choose truly whole grain products:

  1. Check the ingredients list. Look for the word "whole" before the type of grain listed, such as "whole wheat" or "whole oats." The ingredients list is typically found on the back of the package, and the first ingredient listed should be a whole grain.
  2. Don't rely on front-of-the-package marketing. Just because a package has pictures of healthy grains on it or says "multigrain," "wheat," "double fiber," "cracked wheat," "7 grain," "stone ground," "enriched," "fortified," or "made with whole grains," does not necessarily mean it is a whole grain product. Be sure to check the ingredients list to confirm.
  3. Look for products with a higher percentage of whole grains. Some products may contain a mix of whole and refined grains, so look for products with a higher percentage of whole grains to ensure you're getting the most nutritional benefit.
  4. Choose less processed grains. The more processed a grain is, the more nutrients it loses. Choose whole grains that are less processed, such as brown rice instead of white rice, or steel-cut oats instead of instant oats.

By following these tips, you can make informed decisions when selecting whole grain products and ensure you're getting the most nutritional benefit from the food you consume.

Understanding the Food Label

Label says...Product Contains...
100% whole grainNo refined flour
Made with whole grainsMay contain a little or a lot of whole grains
Whole grainAs little as 51% whole grain flour
Good source of whole grain15% to 25% whole grain
MultigrainA mixture of grains, possibly all or mostly refined grains

Read the Label

When it comes to selecting whole grain products, checking the Nutrition Facts label can provide helpful clues to a food's whole grain content. Fiber content is a good indicator of whole grain content, so look for 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.

However, it's important not to focus solely on whole grains when trying to improve your diet. Use the Nutrition Facts label to guide you towards products with less sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar as well. By looking at the whole picture, you can make informed decisions about the food you consume and maintain a healthy and balanced diet.

Caroline Buckee

Caroline Flannigan is an epidemiologist. She is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and is the Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

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