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Foods labeled ‘whole grain’ are often unhealthy, Harvard study finds

The Whole Grain Stamp puts a “health halo around sugary foods,” said nutrition director Bonnie Liebman of CSPI. “I think that’s a real danger.”

whole grain stamp
The whole grain stamps

Consumers looking for whole-grain products in the grocery aisles shouldn’t rely on that yellow Whole Grain Stamp. Although products with the stamp tend to be higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, they also tend to contain more sugar and calories than products without it, according to a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Even careful readings of ingredient labels can mislead consumers into buying unhealthful grain products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently recommends that consumers choose grain products that list a whole grain as their first ingredient. But the Harvard study found that the order of ingredients is also not a reliable means of ensuring that a whole-grain food is healthful.

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“Our findings call into question the usefulness of the industry-supported stamp and several USDA-recommended criteria available to consumers and organizations to identify healthful [whole-grain] products,” conclude the authors of the study, which was published earlier this month in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

Yet the food industry continues to expand its whole-grain market lines. The last decade has seen an explosion of products — breads, bagels, English muffins, cereals, crackers, cookies, cereal bars, granola bars, chips and more — being marketed to consumers for their whole-grain content. By 2015, the global market for whole-grain foods is expected to exceed $24 billion.

Consumer confusion

A diet rich in whole grains is associated with many health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes. The USDA’s dietary guidelines call for three servings of whole grains daily.

But identifying and selecting healthful whole grain options is a complicated and confusing task, due in large part to a lack of regulations regarding which products can be defined as “whole grain.”

According to U.S. regulations, any food that labels itself “whole grain” must contain at least 51 percent whole grain by dry weight. (FYI: In Germany, the requirement is 90 percent.) But those regulations say nothing about how much sugar, salt, trans fats and other additives can be in the other 49 percent of the product.

It’s easy, therefore, for a product bearing the Whole Grain Stamp to be unhealthful.

A dangerous ‘health halo’

“I’m glad to see we’re not the only ones complaining about the Whole Grain Stamp,” said Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in Washington, D.C., in a phone interview Monday about the Harvard study.

The stamp puts a “health halo around sugary foods,” she added. “I think that’s a real danger.”

[Full disclosure: Many years ago, I worked as editor of CSPI’s newsletter, Nutrition Action.]

Last year, CSPI petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which overseas food labeling, to require that companies clearly list the percentage of whole grain on all their products’ packaging.

“Companies argue that people don’t understand percent, but they put 100 percent whole wheat on their products all the time,” said Liebman.

“The bottom line,” she added, “is they don’t want to tell us.”

What shoppers can do

The Harvard researchers found that the American Heart Association’s whole grain standard — a ratio of total carbohydrate to fiber of less than or equal to 10 to 1 — was the best indicator of a product’s overall healthfulness.

But Liebman said that even this standard is misleading because the fiber that companies put in food products is not always the intact, unprocessed fiber that occurs naturally in grains. Poorly absorbed carbohydrates, such as inulin and maltodextrin, are often added to processed foods and then counted as fiber.

The simplest way of making sure you’re purchasing a healthful whole-grain product is to look for the words “100 percent whole grain” and/or “bran,” said Liebman. Be wary of other phrases on the label, such as “made with whole grain” or “a healthy source of whole grain.” Those claims are essentially meaningless without a statement of the percentage of whole grains (in relationship to refined grains) in the product.

Words like “wheat” and “multi-grain” are also meaningless, as those grains could be mostly refined.

And don’t trust the Whole Grain Stamp, added Liebman.

“It’s not that every whole-grain food out there has more sugar than it’s counterpart,” she said. “You just have to be aware that a Whole Grain Stamp doesn’t equal ‘healthy.’ You can’t just assume that, oh, it’s a whole-grain cookie, so I can eat more. It’s still a cookie, and it still has calories, and the calories do count.”