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Many Americans find whole grain labels confusing and misleading, study finds

Almost half of the study’s participants overstated the amount of whole grain in different products after reading the food labels.

Research suggests that a diet high in whole grains may offer some protection against heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
Photo by Andrew Wong on Unsplash

Many Americans have difficulty understanding the labels on cereals, breads and crackers, a factor that can lead them to overestimate the whole grain content of such products, according to a study published Monday in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

Almost half of the study’s participants overstated the amount of whole grain in different products after reading the food labels, and a similar proportion were unable to correctly determine — again, after reading the labels — which of two grain products was healthier.

The findings underscore the need for clearer and more accurate food labeling, the study’s authors conclude.

“Manufacturers have many ways to persuade you that a product has whole grain even it if doesn’t,” explains Parke Wilde, the study’s lead author and a food economist at Tufts University, in a released statement. “They can tell you it’s multigrain or they can color it brown, but those signals do not really indicate the whole grain content.”

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Being able to decipher the actual whole grain content of a product is important. Research suggests that a diet high in whole grains may offer some protection against heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. As a result, current U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that people choose whole grains for at least half of all the grains they eat, and the American Cancer Society also urges individuals to consume products made from whole rather than refined grains.

Food manufactures have confused consumers, however, by placing whole grain claims on less healthful products, including ones high in sugar and calories. Furthermore, many terms that show up on labels, such as “wheat,” “honey wheat,” “multigrain,” “12-grain” or “made with whole grain,” are essentially meaningless. In fact, they frequently appear on products made primarily from refined, not whole, grains.

Two experiments

For the current study, Wilde and his co-authors wanted to determine just how misleading labels on grain products are. They recruited 1,030 U.S. adults and had them participate in two online experiments.

In the first experiment, participants were shown images of a pair of hypothetical products (similar to real ones on the market) in three categories: cereal, bread and crackers. They were then asked to identify the healthier ones. Each product had a mocked-up front-of-package label (where key nutritional claims for foods are often made) and a Nutrition Facts Panel and ingredient list identical to the ones required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some participants saw front-of-pack labels without any whole grain claims, while others saw labels marked with terms like “multigrain” and “made with whole grains,” or with a whole grain stamp. The products without any whole grain claims on their front label contained higher whole grain content according to the ingredient list. They also contained less sugar.

Depending on the product and label, 29 percent to 47 percent of the participants incorrectly identified the least healthy of the two products as being the healthiest. The error was made most often in the bread category.

“The tendency to choose the incorrect response was greater for respondents with less education or who reported having difficulty determining the [whole grain] content of products,” the researchers write. “In this sense, the consumers who are most likely to be misled by [whole grain] labels are themselves aware of the problem.”

In the second experiment, participants were shown images of four real products with actual packaging labels and asked to state the whole grain content for each (little or none, less than half, half or more, or all). Three of the products (a “honey wheat” bread, a “12 grain” bread and a “multigrain” cracker) listed “enriched flour” as their first ingredient. Whole wheat appeared third (“12 grain” bread), fifth (“multigrain” cracker) or sixth (“honey wheat” bread) on their ingredient lists. The fourth product was an apple cinnamon oat cereal, with “wholegrain oats” listed as its first ingredient.

Between 43 and 51 percent of the participants overstated the whole grain content for the three real products that were not mostly composed of whole grains. The error was made most often for the 12-grain bread. More than 80 percent of the participants, however, accurately stated that the oat cereal was mostly composed of whole grain.

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Limitations and implications

Although nationally representative in terms of age, gender, race and ethnic group, the study’s respondents were more likely than the general U.S. population to have a college or graduate degree and were slightly more likely to have a mid-level household annual income ($50,000-$75,000). In addition, the experiments presented participants with a limited number of hypothetical and real products.

Still, the findings are supported by previous research that has shown consumers have difficulty determining the whole grain content of food from product labels.

“With the results of this study, we have a strong legal argument that whole grain labels are misleading in fact,” says study co-author Jennifer Pomeranz, an assistant professor of public health policy and management at New York University, in a released statement.

“Even people with advanced degrees cannot figure out how much whole grain is in these products,” she adds.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the website for Public Health Nutrition, but the full study is behind a paywall. For tips on how to get more whole grain fiber into your diet, go to the United States Department of Health’s website.