Skip to main content

14-01-2013 | Article

Ill-defined meaning of ‘whole grain’ convolutes healthy food choices


Free full text

medwireNews: A grain product that has a carbohydrate to fiber ratio of 10 to1 best indicates the most healthful whole grain (WG) option compared with the plethora of other products with varying WG criteria.

Products with the 10 to 1 ratio also had the largest WG to non-WG difference in content with an average of +3.15 grams of fiber per serving. The ratio also proved to be a reliable metric for lower sugar, sodium, and a reduced likelihood of trans-fats without energy differences, a Public Health Nutrition analysis found.

Other WG criteria, such as a commonly seen industry-supported WG-stamp that is meant to indicate healthful WG products, proved to also have higher fiber and lower trans-fat content but also higher sugars and energy.

The benefits of consuming WG foods are widely known and include lower risk for cardiovascular disease, weight gain, and diabetes due to micronutrients, polyphenols, fatty acids, and dietary fiber.

The study shows that the term "whole grain," which is often marketed and promoted on food packages, lacks standards that could otherwise reliably guide consumers and organizations in selecting healthful WG products.

"There is no one cohesive recommendation," primary author Rebecca Mozaffarian (Harvard School of Public Health, Boston) told medwireNews. "US dietary guidelines say eat at least 3 servings of whole grains a day while school lunch guidelines say only 50% of whole grains have to be whole."

From investigating the causes of childhood obesity, Mozaffarian and colleagues sought evidence-based recommendations to select healthy snacks served at afterschool programs - including WG products. "We found it was hard to do," Mozaffarian said. "We tried to find recommendations for organizations so people can choose healthy whole grains [but] there were so many out there."

In the future, Mozaffarian sees a role for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to create a standard that could inform policy about the marketing and labeling of WG foods. "In terms of the legal issues of what can be called 'whole grain' and what can't be it can be interpreted in many different ways," she said. "Because there isn't any standardized language I think it's getting a bit taken advantage of by industry."

Mozaffarian views the overall quality of carbohydrates in the US diet as a problem with some refined grains having the same biological effect as sugars, and consumers have difficulty identifying healthier WG options.

"If a consumer organization wanted to provide healthier foods," she said, "I think we really need to figure out what a healthy whole grain is."

By Peter Sergo, medwireNews Reporter