There are have always been certain buzzwords that immediately make us think, “That must be good for me!” Specifically you might think of “antioxidants,” “high-fiber” and/or “low-fat.” One of the longest-running and most prevalent sales tactics, though, is that of labeling things as “whole grain.” Before you opt for that hearty-looking, brown bread over the starchy white stuff, there are some things you should know. Namely, what really is “whole grain” and is it actually better for you? Are there times when you should avoid whole grain products?
What Are Whole Grains
As their name suggest, whole grains are grains that still retain all of their various parts. When grains are processed, these sections – the bran, the endosperm and the germ – are separated and the majority of the grain is left out so that only the starchy endosperm remains. In whole grain products, though, every part is included in theory, but we’ll talk more about this later.
Let’s just be clear, including all three parts of the grain does absolutely render better health benefits. The bran, particularly, is incredibly rich in dietary fiber, which has been shown in study after study to improve your overall colon and cardiovascular health. Whole grains also contain more fat and protein, giving them a slightly better nutritional profile.
That being said, whole grains are not necessarily the cure-all that they are sometimes presented as. In fact, if you are trying to follow a low- or no-carb diet, whole grain products are essentially the same as other options. Despite their more well rounded nutritional profile, whole grains still have a large impact on your glycemic index.
The real problems, though, arise from the issue of poor food-labeling practices. Basically, the logical definition of whole grain that we discussed above is not the same definition that many manufacturers of these products use. This is because, ultimately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not set clear limits on what companies are allowed to call specific foods, “whole grain.” There is also a terrible loophole in our food laws that states in order for a food to be called “whole grain,” only 51 percent of the product has to consist of the entire grain. Surprisingly, take bread for example; this means that the other 49 percent of that whole grain bread can consist of the same questionable ingredients that you are trying to avoid by avoiding the consumption of white bread.
In fact, a study published in the Public Health Nutrition journal compared 545 different whole grain products that fell into at least one of five different standards. Specifically, the products had to either:
- Be labeled with the gold “Whole Grain” stamp. This stamp means that the product contains at least 8g of whole grains per serving and is earned by both meeting this standard and by paying membership dues to the Whole Grain Council.
- Contain any whole grain listed as the first ingredient.
- Contain any whole grain listed as the first ingredient and having no added sugars in the first three ingredient slots.
- Have the word “whole” before any grain in the ingredient list.
- Have a ratio of 10:1 regarding carbohydrates and fiber.
The researchers found that the widely used “Whole Grain” stamp was actually the worst indicator of healthfulness. Products sporting this label consistently contained significantly more sugar and calories than those that did not have the stamp. The other criteria all had mixed results. The 10:1 ratio – as recommended by the American Heart Association – however, proved to be the best indicator to look for. Overall, the products that met this standard had more fiber, less fat, less sugar, less sodium and fewer calories when compared to the other product groups.
What You Can Do
Here’s the problem, though: There is currently no label for products that meet the AHA standards for carbohydrate and fiber content. While you could do the math yourself, this is just impractical. So, what can you do?
Read the labels. Select products that contain a whole grain as the first ingredient and no added sugars in the first three ingredients.
The best strategy, though, is to avoid processed grains altogether. Instead, purchase whole, raw grains that you cook yourself. This is the best way to know what you and your family are eating.