The packaging on the fronts of foods can be misleading, and perhaps there is no clearer example of this than when it comes to grain foods.
Can I tell which is healthier from the front of the label packaging: whole grains, multigrain, 12-grain?
Most of us know that eating more whole grain, higher fiber foods is important for health. But how do we determine which bread, cereal, or crackers contain whole grains? It’s a confusing world out there: wheat, multigrain, made with whole grain, 12-grain. A recent study asked over 1,000 consumers to identify the healthiest food based on whole grain content from a choice of two options. One option had a whole grains claim on the front of the package but actually contained fewer whole grains (and often more sugar, saturated fat, or sodium) as identified by the information in the nutrition facts panel and ingredients list on the back of the package. The other product did not have a whole grains label on the front, and you guessed it – it contained more whole grains.
29-47% of the respondents incorrectly identified the healthier food: the one without the whole grains label on the front!
What are the regulations around whole grains?
It’s hard to believe that there are no firm federal guidelines that regulate the description of whole grains. Draft guidance was issued in 2006, but no firm guidelines have yet been issued. That’s a major reason why there is much confusion over the various descriptions of grains on bread, cracker, and cereal packaging. For example, there is no definition about the amount of whole grains contained in foods labeled "whole grain."
Food manufacturers would like us to believe that ‘wheat’ is the same as ‘100% whole wheat’ but there are no regulations around these terms. The best way for consumers to determine if a food contains 100% whole grains is to look at the ingredients list on the food label. The first ingredient should include the word ‘whole’ such as "whole oats" or "whole wheat."
What is the Whole Grains Council stamp?
The Whole Grains Council developed the Whole Grains Stamp in 2005 to clearly define the amount of whole grains in various foods. There are three different Whole Grain Stamps:
- The 100% Stamp means that all of the grain ingredients in the food are whole grain, with a minimum requirement of 16 grams of whole grains per serving. 16 grams of whole grains is considered one serving with a goal of three servings per day to meet whole grain and fiber recommendations for good health.
- The 50%+ Stamp means that at least half of the grain ingredients are whole grain, with a minimum requirement of 8 grams of whole grain per serving. This is the newest whole grain stamp, added in January 2017.
- The Basic Stamp is for foods that contain at least 8 grams of whole grains, however there may be more refined grains than whole grains.
It’s important for consumers to know that in order for a food to display the Whole Grains Stamp, the company must be a member of the Whole Grains Council and complete an application for each food, which is then reviewed. Some companies may decide to not join the Whole Grains Council, so their 100% whole grain food might not display the stamp. Once again, reading the Nutrition Facts label is the most accurate way for consumers to choose healthy foods.
Whole grain shopping tips:
- Always look for "100% whole grains" to be absolutely sure that the food you’re purchasing is made from only whole grains and is not a mixture of refined and whole grains.
- The first ingredient should include the word "whole" such as ‘"whole oats" or "whole wheat."
- Look for foods with the 100% Whole Grains Stamp. In our opinion, the other stamps are just as confusing as other front of packaging food labels.
By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDCES, CPT, CHWC
- ConscienHealth. Healthy Whole Grains, Unhealthy Labels. https://conscienhealth.org/2020/08/health-whole-grains-unhealthy-labels/ published 8-12-20. Accessed 8-16-20
- Wilde, P., Pomeranz, J., Lizewski, L., & Zhang, F. 2020. Consumer confusion about wholegrain content andhealthfulness in product labels: A discrete choice experiment and comprehension assessment. Public Health Nutrition, 1-8. Doi:10.1017/S1368980020001688
- Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center. How to Navigate Nutrient and Health Claims on Food Packaging. https://www.nycfoodpolicy.org/how-to-navigate-nutrient-and-health-claims-on-food-packaging/ published 2/5/20; accessed 8/16/20
- US Food and Drug Administration. Dietary Supplement Labeling Guide: Chapter VI. Claims. https://www.fda.gov/food/dietary-supplements-guidance-documents-regulatory-information/dietary-supplement-labeling-guide-chapter-vi-claims#6-4 content current as of 3/21/18; accessed 8/16/20
- USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Claims Guidance. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/regulatory-compliance/labeling/Claims-Guidance last updated 12/27/19; accessed 8-16-20
- Federal Trade Commission. Enforcement Policy Statement on Food Advertising. https://www.ftc.gov/public-statements/1994/05/enforcement-policy-statement-food-advertising published 5/13/1994; accessed 8/16/20
- USDA Draft Guidance on Whole Grain Label Statements. https://wholegrainscouncil.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/FDAdraftguidance.pdf published February 2006; accessed 8/16/20
- Oldways Whole Grains Council. Whole Grain Stamp. https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grain-stamp accessed 8-20-20.
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.