There's no shortage of options in the bread aisle: white, wheat, multi-grain, whole-wheat, 100 percent whole wheat, sprouted-grain bread, honey wheat and beyond. That's why figuring out what qualifies as "whole grain" — and what's pretending to be — gets tricky.
If you've ever felt bamboozled by bread, know this: When shown hypothetical products, 29 to 47 percent of consumers were unable to identify the healthier option across cereals, bread and crackers. And when shown real products, 43 to 51 percent overstated the whole grain content in crackers, cereals and bread, an August 2020 study in Public Health Nutrition by Tufts University and the NYU School of Global Public Health found.
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Here's your go-to guide to buying whole-grain products from a dietitian.
Good-for-You Whole Grains
Whole-grain foods have a host of benefits. A large body of research shows that whole grains are linked to reduced risks of type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease and colorectal cancer while supporting weight management and improving chronic inflammation, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
It's no wonder the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that you make at least half of your total grain intake whole grains.
Unfortunately, we're far from meeting this recommendation: 42 percent of all of our calories come from low-quality carbohydrates including refined grains like white bread, crackers and baked goods, per a September 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
A food is considered "whole grain" when the grain is present in its whole form or ground into flour while retaining all parts of the seed, including the bran, germ and endosperm, per the Mayo Clinic. You can count on the following foods to be truly whole grain:
- Brown rice
- Whole-wheat bread
- Whole-wheat pasta
- Whole-wheat crackers
Why Buying Whole Grains Can Be Tricky
So what is it exactly that trips us up when we're shopping for whole grains? The August 2020 whole-grain study found that consumers have trouble discerning terms such as:
- "made with whole grains"
- "honey wheat"
- "12 grain"
These claims marketed on the front of many food products' packages also made it difficult for shoppers to interpret the ingredients.
So, how do you sift through all of the options and marketing claims to land on a truly, good-for-you whole grain product? This requires some serious scrutiny, and here are some tips to help:
- Look for the Whole Grain Stamp on the packaging: There are three types of Whole Grain Stamps
that can be found on products with whole grains: 100% Stamp, 50%+ Stamp and the
Basic Stamp. The 100% and 50%+ Stamps are your healthiest options.
The Basic Stamp means there is at least a half-serving of whole grain, but there may be more refined grains than whole grains overall. Also, not all whole-grain products carry the stamp, so don't dismiss a stamp-less product without doing more digging.
- Check the ingredients list for the word "whole:" Terms like "enriched flour," "wheat flour," "bran," "wheat
germ," and "multi-grain," do not mean whole grain. The term "whole" needs to be
in front of the grain to confirm it includes a whole grain. If the first ingredient listed contains the word "whole,"
then it's a safe bet (but not totally certain) that the product is predominately
whole grains. If the second ingredient listed is not a whole grain, it's possible up to 49 percent of the product is
made of refined grains. If the first ingredient does not say "whole" but the
second one does, you can be certain that less than half of the product is made
up of whole grains.
- Don't rely on fiber alone: Fiber is great for you, but just because a bread, cracker or cereal is high in fiber, doesn't mean it's whole-grain. Fiber can be added to any product to help boost the content regardless if it's a whole grain.
It can also be helpful to understand the other terminology that's common on grain products, according to the Mayo Clinic. For example, refined grains have a finer texture and longer shelf life, but the beneficial germ and bran are removed from the food. The refining process also removes many nutrients (like fiber).
Plenty of cereals, pastries, crackers, desserts and breads are made with refined grains like white flour and white rice.
Enriched grains are grains that have many of their nutrients replaced after first losing them during processing. The term "fortified" means nutrients were added into the food during the manufacturing process. Many refined grains are enriched, and many enriched grains also are fortified with other vitamins and minerals — particularly cereals. Whole grains may or may not be fortified.
The Best Whole Grain Products to Buy
To help save you the trouble, we've pulled together just a few of our favorite whole-grain products.
Whole-Grain Crackers and Snacks
- Public Health Nutrition: "Consumer Confusion About Wholegrain Content and Healthfulness in Product Labels: A Discrete Choice Experiment and Comprehension Assessment"
- Whole Grains Council: "What Are the Health Benefits?"
- 2020-2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans
- Journal of the American Medical Association: "Trends in Dietary Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat Intake and Diet Quality Among US Adults, 1999-2016"
- Whole Grain Council: "Whole Grain Stamps"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Whole Grains"
- Mayo Clinic: "Whole grains: Hearty options for a healthy diet"