A new study published in the online edition of Public Health Nutrition, authored by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), examined current standards for classifying “whole grain” foods, and found that many products labeled with the Whole Grain Stamp were not necessarily healthier for consumers. In fact, researchers found several products labeled as whole grain to actually be higher in both sugars and calories, than those without the Whole Grain Stamp. As a result of theses findings, the Harvard research team has urged regulators to enforce a consistent standard for labeling whole grain products in order to help consumers make healthy choices. While the health benefits of whole grains, such as a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, weight gain and type 2 diabetes, remain, the researchers take issue with the inconsistency in labeling, and urge for a single standard to define a “whole grain.”
Rebecca Mozaffarian, project manager in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at HSPH, and her colleagues assessed five different industry and government guidelines for whole grain products:
· The Whole Grain Stamp, a packaging symbol for products containing at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving (created by the Whole Grain Council, a non-governmental organization supported by industry dues)
· Any whole grain as the first listed ingredient (recommended by the USDA’s MyPlate and the Food and Drug Administration’s Consumer Health Information guide)
· Any whole grain as the first ingredient without added sugars in the first three ingredients (also recommended by USDA’s MyPlate)
· The word “whole” before any grain anywhere in the ingredient list (recommended by USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010)
· The “10:1 ratio,” a ratio of total carbohydrate to fiber of less than 10 to 1, which is approximately the ratio of carbohydrate to fiber in whole wheat flour (recommended by the American Heart Association’s 2020 Goals)
In evaluating two major U.S. grocers, researchers found 545 grain products in eight categories (breads, bagels, English muffins, cereals, crackers, cereal bars, granola bars and chips), and recorded the products’ nutrition content, ingredients and the presence or absence of the Whole Grain Stamp on products.
Findings show that products with the Whole Grain Stamp were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, but contained slightly more sugar and calories. The three USDA recommended criteria also had mixed performance for identifying healthier grain products. Overall, the American Heart Association’s standard (a ratio of total carbohydrate to fiber of 10:1) proved to be the best indicator of overall healthfulness. Products meeting this ratio were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, sugar and sodium, without higher calories than products that did not meet the ratio.