You know whole grains are healthier than refined grains — they contain more nutrients, help prevent cancer, diabetes and other conditions and help you maintain good digestive health and live longer. (If you need to, catch up on why whole grains are the healthiest.)
But choosing the best whole-grain products can be challenging. “Whole grain” is a buzzword now, so many companies have found ways to trick consumers into buying their products. You might think you’re making healthy whole-grain choices, but are you?
Read on for what not to do and what to do at the grocery store or online when deciding what whole-grain products to buy.
What not to do when selecting whole-grain breads, cereals and other products
Don’t choose products based on color alone. Most, although not all, whole grains are darker in color, but if a loaf of bread is brown, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a whole grain. Food coloring, brown sugar and molasses are all used to make foods darker.
Don’t only judge food by its packaging. Words and phrases are often used to make us think it’s whole grain when it’s not, such as “multi-grain,” “stone-ground,” 100-percent wheat,” “cracked wheat,” “seven grain” or “bran.”
Don’t choose foods with enriched white flour. It’s not nutritionally equivalent to whole-wheat flour. Out of the 22 nutrients reduced, only four are replaced.
What to do when selecting whole-grain breads, cereals and other products
Do read the ingredients. Wheat flour is another name for white flour (refined flour).
Do look at the nutrition label. Look at the amount of fiber. Most whole-grain products have three grams of fiber (a good source) or five grams (an excellent source,) while refined grain products will have one gram. But you can’t only tell by looking at the fiber because fiber can be added to products in other ways, such as inulin, polydextrose, wheat dextrin, soluble corn fiber and resistant maltodextrin, so always look at the ingredients.
How to choose whole-grain products
There are five different industry and government guidelines for whole-grain products:
The Whole Grain Stamp. This is a packaging symbol for products created by the Whole Grain Council, a non-governmental organization supported by industry dues. A “100 percent Whole Grain Stamp” means one serving equals 16 grams of whole grains per serving. A “Basic Whole Grain Stamp” means the product provides a half serving, or eight grams of whole grains per serving.
Any whole grain listed as the first ingredient. This is recommended by the USDA’s MyPlate and the Food and Drug Administration’s consumer health Information guide.
Any whole grain listed as the first ingredient without any added sugars in the first three ingredients. This is recommended by USDA’s MyPlate.
The word “whole” before any grain anywhere in the ingredient list. This is recommended by USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010.
The 10:1 ratio, a ratio of total carbohydrates to fiber of less than 10 to 1. This is approximately the ratio of carbs to fiber in whole-wheat flour. It comes from a report from the Harvard School of Public Health published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, and is recommended by the American Heart Association’s 2020 Goals. Divide the grams of carbs by 10. If the grams of fiber is at least as large as the answer, the food meets the standard.
A study by Harvard School of Public Health researchers found that products with the Whole Grain Stamp identified grain products that were higher in both sugars and calories than products without the Stamp. Also, the three USDA recommended criteria had mixed performance. The American Heart Association’s standard proved to be the best overall indicator of overall healthfulness; products that met this criteria were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, sugar and sodium, without higher calories.
One problem with the ratio, however, is that it requires math. Also, other people have expressed concerns with the ratio. For example, brown rice, wild rice, sorghum and whole cornmeal would not attain the 10:1 ratio, and adding isolated fibers to a product with refined grains might allow it to meet the 10:1 ratio.
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