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The Whole Truth About Whole Grains

Whether it’s a bowl of pesto pasta or a warm banana-nut muffin straight from the oven, we can all agree carbs are incredible. The scent of baking bread actually makes human beings kinder, according to researchers at the University of Brittany in France. Carbohydrates, while delicious, are also an important source of energy, and most Americans are beginning to choose whole, complex carbs over simple, refined carbs. But it’s not always an easy decision. And, relying on “whole grain” labels alone won’t help you make the healthiest choice.

A 1,030-participant study done by Tufts University and New York University (NYU) asked people to choose the healthiest option between two “whole grain” products, some real and some hypothetical, to understand whether or not they could determine which products were healthier. The study found that most Americans struggled to choose the healthiest whole-grain option. For example, over 51% of participants overestimated the amount of whole grains in a 12-grain sample, and another 41% overestimated the whole grain count in multigrain crackers. Dr. Park Wilde, author of the Tufts study, stated “Our study results show that many consumers cannot correctly identify the amount of whole grains or select a healthier whole-grain product.” So why is it so difficult to make the healthiest choice?

To answer this question, it’s important to look at what Tufts and NYU wanted to determine with their study: if there was a strong legal precedent that whole grain labels are misleading. The evidence of this study would support a growing movement for clearer product labeling requirements. Jennifer L. Pomeranz, co-author and assistant professor of public health and policy management at NYU, said “I would say when it comes to deceptive labels, ‘whole grain’ claims are among the worst.” That’s a pretty scary conclusion about a major food group. However, there are strategies to help you make the healthiest choice the next time you find yourself staring down the bread aisle.

The easiest way to check a product’s contents is to look at the ingredient list in the nutrition facts. If whole grains come first, then you’ve made a healthier choice. Another helpful skill is to know what all these labels actually mean. A 100% whole grain stamp means that all the bread’s grain ingredients are whole grains, and the bread contains at least 16 grams of whole grains in each serving. Made with whole grains is where things start to get confusing – companies may even make the “made with” text small and unnoticeable. This label means that there are some whole grains in the bread, but the majority of grains may be refined. Multigrain just means the product was made with more than one type of grain; it doesn’t tell you if they were whole grains or refined. 21 whole grains and seeds lets you know there are seeds and a bunch of grains in the bread—21 to be exact. But that doesn’t mean they are a main ingredient. Some companies sprinkle the top of less-healthy bread with seeds and grains, so they can sell the product under this label. If confused, look at the ingredients list. If the whole grains are buried at the bottom, it probably isn’t the healthiest choice.

With so many claims out there, it’s no wonder the Tufts and NYU study found a strong legal argument that whole grain labels are misleading. Although all these labels still meet the FDA’s requirements for advertising, many experts are going against the grain and asking why misleading messages are allowed. Co-senior author and nutritional epidemiologist at Friedman School Dr. Fang Fang Zhang said “A large chunk of American’s daily calories—42 percent—comes from low-quality carbohydrates. Consuming more whole grains can help change that, but the policy challenge is to provide consumers with clear labels in order to make those healthier choices.” Most people want to eat healthier. The Tufts and NYU study found that 75% of participants knew whole grains are better for their health and 62% say they intentionally choose whole-grain foods when given the option. 

It’s important to eat a variety of grain-based staples, so don’t skip tomorrow’s overnight oats. The USDA recommends that most adults eat a minimum of three grain-based foods every day. At least half of those servings should be whole grains. Whether you’re picking up a loaf of sourdough, fresh pasta, or breakfast cereal, it’s important to look further than “whole grain” labels. Always check the nutrition facts label for clear, accurate information on products. Learning how to read the nutrition facts is the best way to guarantee you are making the right choices for a healthy diet. So the next time you pick up groceries, toast your healthy choices.

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