Do Whole Grain Labels Indicate Healthier Products?

January 16, 2013

Harvard researchers investigate whether whole grain marketing promotes healthier products or not.

Consumer demand for whole grain foods is growing alongside government recommendations. In the United States alone, current USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend three or more servings of whole grain products daily, and the latest nutrition standards for school lunches require at least half of all grains to be “whole grain rich.” But, as manufacturers try to take advantage with whole grain labeling, are products labeled for whole grains any healthier than their conventional alternatives?

A study in the journal Public Health Nutrition presents some doubt. Harvard researchers purchased 545 grain products from two major grocery store chains-Wal-Mart and Stop & Shop-and compared them to similar, non–whole grain products based on key health-related characteristics: fiber, sugar, sodium, likelihood of containing trans-fats, energy, and price. The whole grain products were categorized according to their whole grain marketing language: an industry-sponsored “Whole Grain” stamp; “whole grain” as the first ingredient; “whole grain” as the first ingredient without added sugars; “whole” anywhere on the ingredient list; or a 10:1 or lower content ratio of carbohydrate to fiber. The USDA criteria for identifying whole grain products uses the ingredient list and the American Heart Association recently developed its own standard based on the carbohydrate-fiber ratio.

It turns out that products marketed with whole grain language were, based on the health criteria measured, often less healthy than conventional non-whole grain products.

Products labeled with the stamp, “whole grain” as the first ingredient, or “whole grain” anywhere on the ingredient list were likely higher in fiber and lower in sodium, but more likely to contain higher sugar and energy levels. Products labeled for “whole grain” as the first ingredient without added sugars were higher in fiber and lower in sugar, but not less likely for trans-fats or sodium. A 10:1 ratio of carbohydrate to fiber was typically associated with higher fiber, lower sodium, lower sugar, lower likelihood of trans-fats, and no energy increases. However, products with the 10:1 ratio (and products bearing the stamp) tended to be more expensive than their conventional counterparts.

“Our analyses suggest that using several of the readily available or recommended information on product packages and ingredient listings to select healthful whole grain products may be misleading for consumers and organizations (e.g. schools, workplace cafeterias),” wrote the study’s author. “Although individual contents of sugars, sodium, energy, and trans-fat are contained on product nutrition facts panels in many countries, consumers find it challenging to synthesize and interpret such detailed products nutrition listings and rarely use them effectively.”

The Whole Grains Council, the official sponsor of the Whole Grain stamp, contends that there are some flaws in the study, including the use of an outdated whole grains definition and the fact that numerous products used in the study may have undergone reformulation for lower sugars or sodium in recent years. Still, the study’s main conclusion that whole grain products tended to have not equaled but higher levels of unhealthy characteristics than conventional products is worthy of concern.