June 5, 2020

All Whole Grains Are Not Created Equal

The health benefits of eating whole grains are well established, but not all foods labeled whole grain are created equal, according to a new study by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).  In fact, standards for classifying foods as “whole grain” are so nebulous that some products labeled as such have more  sugar and calories than some that aren’t.

USDA“Given the significant prevalence of refined grains, starches, and sugars in modern diets, identifying a unified criterion to identify higher quality carbohydrates is a key priority in public health,” said  Rebecca Mozaffarian, onne of the study’s authors who is also a project manager in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at HSPH. The other researchers were: Rebekka Lee and Mary Kennedy; Dariush Mozaffarian, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology; David Ludwig, professor in the Department of Nutrition and Steven Gortmaker, professor of the practice of health sociology.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend Americans eat three or more servings of whole grains each day.  But what counts as whole grain?

HSPH researchers looked at five different industry and government guidelines for whole grain products including: the Whole Grain Stamp, a packaging symbol created by the Whole Grain Council, for products  that contain at least eight grams of whole grains per serving. The next three were from USDA recommendations including: any whole grain that was the first listed ingredient; any whole grain as the first ingredient without added sugars in the first three ingredients; the word “whole” before any grain anywhere in the ingredient list. The last one was the American Heart Association’s  “10:1 ratio,” a ratio of total carbohydrate to fiber of less than 10 to 1.

The researchers identified 545 grain products and organized them into eight categories: breads, bagels, English muffins, cereals, crackers, cereal bars, granola bars, and chips. Then they collected nutrition content, ingredient lists, and checked which products had the Whole Grain Stamp on their packages.

What researchers found was that products with the Whole Grain Stamp were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, than other products, but they also contained more sugar and calories compared to products without the stamp. And that the best indicator of  overall healthfulness was the heart association’s 10:1 ratio. “Our results will help inform national discussions about product labeling, school lunch programs, and guidance for consumers and organizations in their attempts to select whole grain products,” said  Gortmaker.

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