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Current standards for classifying foods as whole grain are inconsistent and in some cases misleading, according to a new study by Harvard School of Public Health researchers.
The study empirically evaluated the healthfulness of whole grain foods based on five commonly used industry and government definitions.
The study found that the Whole Grain Stamp – one of the most widely used industry standards – was sometimes used on grain products that were actually higher in both sugars and calories than products without the stamp.
The researchers urged adoption of a consistent, evidence-based standard for labeling whole grain foods to help consumers and organizations make healthy choices.
“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,” said first author Rebecca Mozaffarian, project manager in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at HSPH.
The study, “Identifying Whole Grain Foods: a comparison of different approaches for selecting more healthful whole grain products,” appears in the Jan. 4 advanced online edition of Public Health Nutrition.
The health benefits of switching from refined to whole grain foods are well established – including lower risk of cardiovascular disease, weight gain and type 2 diabetes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 dietary guidelines recommend that Americans consume at least three servings of whole grain products daily, and the new U.S. national school lunch standards require that at least half of all grains be whole grain-rich. However, no single standard exists for defining a product as “whole grain.”
Mozaffarian and her colleagues assessed five different industry and government guidelines for whole grain products:
The whole grain stamp – a packaging symbol for products containing at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving, created by the Whole Grain Council, a nongovernmental organization supported by industry dues.
Any whole grain as the first listed ingredient – recommended by the USDA’s MyPlate and the Food and Drug Administration’s Consumer Health Information guide.
Any whole grain as the first ingredient without added sugars in the first three ingredients – also recommended by USDA’s MyPlate.
The word “whole” before any grain anywhere in the ingredient list – recommended by USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010.
The 10-to-1 ratio – a ratio of total carbohydrate to fiber of less than 10 to 1, which is approximately the ratio of carbohydrate to fiber in whole wheat flour, recommended by the American Heart Association’s 2020 Goals
The researchers identified a total of 545 grain products from two major U.S. grocers in eight categories: breads, bagels, English muffins, cereals, crackers, cereal bars, granola bars and chips.
They collected nutrition content, ingredient lists, and the presence or absence of the Whole Grain Stamp on the packages of all the products.
They found that grain products with the Whole Grain Stamp, one of the most widely-used front-of-package symbols, were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, but also contained significantly more sugar and calories compared to products without the stamp.
The three USDA-recommended criteria also had mixed performance for identifying healthier grain products.
Overall, the American Heart Association’s 10-to-1 standard proved to be the best indicator of overall healthfulness. Products meeting this ratio were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, sugar and sodium, without higher calories 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 health sociology.
Other HSPH authors included researchers Rebekka Lee and Mary Kennedy; Dariush Mozaffarian, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology; and David Ludwig, professor in the Department of Nutrition.
Support for the study was provided by the Donald and Sue Pritzker Nutrition and Fitness Initiative, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New Balance Foundation, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health.