Whole grain cheerios

With Hostess’ recent bankruptcy filing, we can only hope that its Wonder Bread will be permanently erased from the planet, and take with it any lingering beliefs that bleached white flour contains any nutritional value. A return to whole grains has been embraced in our nation’s schools, popular supermarket food brands and even restaurant menus. But what if the “whole grain” assertion wasn’t living up to its claim?

According to Rodale.com, a recent study published by the Harvard School of Public Health found that the popular yellow “100% Whole Grain” stamp that graces approximately 7,500 products may actually be misleading.

Instead of getting a hearty dose of fiber-rich, pure whole grains, the study found that you’re more likely getting a lot of extra sugar and calories, and less fiber.

The study researchers looked at five whole grain marketing claims. According to federal law, products that claim to be “whole grain” must include at least 51 percent whole grain by weight. That means the remaining percentage—nearly half—can include unhealthy ingredients including refined grains, which kind of defeats the purpose of opting for a “whole grain” product in the first place. It can also include refined sugars, excessive sodium, artificial colors and flavors.

But it’s more than half whole grains, so it’s healthy, right?

In total, the researchers analyzed 545 products making one of the following “whole grain” claims, according to Rodale:

  • Had Whole Grain Council’s “100% Whole Grain” stamp, which isn’t regulated by the federal government
  • A whole grain was listed as the product’s first ingredient on the ingredients list.
  • A whole grain was listed as the first ingredient, and no added sugars were in the first three ingredients on that list.
  • The word “whole” appeared before any ingredient on the ingredients list.
  • The product met the American Heart Association’s 10:1 ratio, which means the ratio of total carbohydrates to fiber per serving was at least 10 to 1 (lower than 10 means more fiber per serving; higher than 10 means more carbs than fiber).

The researchers found the products with “100% Whole Grain” claims and having “whole” appear before any word on the ingredients list were not only the most expensive options, they were also most likely to have more calories, sugar and a higher risk of containing trans fats, which are known to cause heart damage.

You can credit the rise in consumer interest in whole grains for the inevitable healthwashing. According to Rodale, “the rush to get them [whole grains] to grocery stores has exploded since 2005, when the USDA first recommended that 50 percent of your grain intake should be from whole grains. There are now 400 percent more products marketed as whole grain than there were in 2005.”

So how do you ensure you’re truly getting whole grains that are good for you without any of the bad stuff? Start with the obvious: by them plain and cook them yourself. Skip anything in a box or bag, and definitely read the ingredients and nutrition profile for each product.

Need some tips on whole grains? Check out these articles:

Beyond Rice: Cooking with Heirloom Grains

A True Superfood: Black Rice is Extra Nice

4 Superfood Whole Grains to Boost Your Metabolism & Energy

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Kevin Grocki