Whole Grain Food Guidelines Fail To Promote Foods That Are Healthier For Consumers
January 11, 2013

Whole Grain Food Guidelines Fail To Promote Foods That Are Healthier For Consumers

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

For some time now many foods have been marketed as having ℠whole grains,´ offering consumers healthier eating options. But a new study from researchers at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) has found that many of these foods classified as having ℠whole grains´ are misleading and may not be any healthier for consumers than brands without whole grains.

The HSPH study also found that current standards for classifying foods as ℠whole grain´ are inconsistent and do not go far enough to ensure that consumers are getting what they are paying for.

Among the industry standards being called into question, is the Whole Grain Stamp, which is meant to identify a food as being a healthy consumer option. But the team found that many of these products were higher in both sugars and calories than products not carrying the Stamp.

Based on the study findings, the research team is urging adoption of a clearer standard for labeling whole grain foods to help consumers and organizations make the right healthy choices.

This is the first study to evaluate the healthfulness of whole grain foods first hand based on five commonly used industry and government definitions.

"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," lead author Rebecca Mozaffarian, project manager in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at HSPH, said in a statement.

Switching to whole grains has many health benefits, such as lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease, weight gain and diabetes. The USDA´s 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend that Americans eat at least three servings of whole grain foods per day. Recent changes to the national school lunch program also require that at least half of all grains served must be rich in whole grains.

However, based on the new evidence, there is no single standard that defines a product as a ℠whole grain.´

Among the guidelines investigated, the team found disparaging results. Not only does the Whole Grain Stamp fail to recognize the unhealthy ingredients also found in foods with whole grains, but other federal standards fall short as well, including those set in place by the FDA, and the USDA.

The researchers collected information on 545 grain products from two major US grocery chains. The grain products came from eight food categories: breads, bagels, English muffins, cereals, crackers, cereal bars, granola bars and chips. The team investigated nutrition content, ingredients, and presence or absence of the Whole Grain Stamp on packaging of products.

They found that most grain products that carried the Whole Grain Stamp were higher in fiber and lower in trans-fat, but also contained significantly more sugar and calories than non-whole grain foods. They also found that three guidelines put in place by the USDA failed miserably.

Guidelines by the American Heart Association (AHA) performed the best overall. Their standards (a ratio of total carbs to fiber of ≤10:1) proved to be the best indicator of overall healthfulness. Products that meet this ratio are higher in fiber and lower in sugars, trans-fats, and sodium, and generally have no higher caloric content than products that did not meet the 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 senior author Steven Gortmaker, professor of the practice of health sociology at HSPH.

The team´s study appeared in last week´s advanced online issue of Public Health Nutrition.