A new study from scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health is the first to empirically evaluate the healthfulness of whole-grain foods based on five commonly used industry and government definitions, finding that the Whole Grain Stamp on food doesn’t always mean it’s a healthy choice.
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 (HSPH) researchers. The Whole Grain Stamp, one of the most widely used industry standards, actually identified grain products that were higher in both sugars and calories than products without the stamp. The researchers urge adoption of a consistent, evidence-based standard for labeling whole-grain foods to help consumers and organizations make healthy choices. This study is the first to empirically evaluate the healthfulness of whole-grain foods based on five commonly used industry and government definitions.
“Given the significant prevalence of refined grains, starches, and sugars in modern diets, [having] 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 appeared in the January 4 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. Based on this evidence, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 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 any product as a “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 “10:1 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)
From two major U.S. grocers, the researchers identified a total of 545 grain products 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 product packages from all of these 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 with products without the stamp. The three USDA recommended criteria also had mixed performance for identifying healthier grain products. Overall, the American Heart Association’s standard (a ratio of total carbohydrate to fiber of equal or less than 10-to-1) 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 the practice of health sociology.
Reference: “Identifying whole grain foods: a comparison of different approaches for selecting more healthful whole grain products” by Rebecca S Mozaffarian, Rebekka M Lee, Mary A Kennedy, David S Ludwig, Dariush Mozaffarian and Steven L Gortmaker, 4 January 2013, Public Health Nutrition.
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 (Prevention Research Centers grant, including the Nutrition and Obesity Policy, Research and Evaluation Network); 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.
I read that cereals are unhealthy.They cause heart disease, etc.Can anyone confirm this?
I can confirm that fresh air popped popcorn, so salt added, no butter added, is very good for the heart and health. The way to eat grains and be healthy is to get more lysine in you, corn is very high in lysine, that is why birds love cracked corn more than anything else.
I would also add that if we wanted to be natural as possible, we should eat sprouted grain breads, like the Essenes did, called Essene bread. https://www.google.com/search?q=Essene+bread
I love this study! It’s not the end-all-be-all, but it is a great tool for those who are designing diets (for themselves or others)! The study is publicly available and reading it provided me with a lot more confidence in the results than the article could.
At first, I was betting the study would be plagued with unjustifiable, highly subjective assumptions of what is “healthy” or “nutritional”. From what I can tell, the study probably used multiple models that each had a single dependent variables, though it may have used multivariate models. The study did not justify the best models to use, particularly compared to alternatives. So, that is a flag for me. Why should I trust these models? Further, the study lacked robust justifications for how to evaluate the statistical associations that their model identified.
Despite those concerns I had, I like the end result. The study describes the various associations that they found, so really you can try to build up your own conclusion instead of just reading about how a fairly singular end result. That is really helpful. In the end, our diet choices are based on our goals, including avoiding “bad” ingredients. We have more experience with our personal history of judging the nutritional value of foods. So, read the study and decide for yourself.
BTW, the Whole Grains stamp results are disappointing IMO. It seems some food manufacturers are adding non-tasty fiber to get the stamp, but then compensating for the flavorless fiber by adding sugar (though not changing salt much).