What is a whole grain? Americans are eating more, but confused by food labels


It’s not unusual to see packages of bread, crackers, cereal or pasta with a seal on the front, touting whole grain in large print. In reality, they may not contain much actual whole grain, a new study suggests.

An analysis of two decades of data on the diets of Americans revealed that people are increasingly choosing whole grain foods, but still not getting enough of them in their daily diets, Tufts University researchers reported in a report. to study published Wednesday in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

At least half of the cereals consumed daily should be whole grains, according to USDA recommendations.

Part of the problem is that people don’t always know which foods contain the healthiest amount of whole grains, previous investigation has found. That’s likely because there are differing definitions of what constitutes a whole-grain product among the Food and Drug Administration, the food industry, and research groups and health associations, the Tufts researchers noted.

A food label simply tells consumers that, as defined by the Whole Grain Council, each serving has at least 8 grams of whole grains, said study co-author Dr. Fang Fang Zhang, acting division president. of epidemiology and nutritional data science at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston. The Whole Grain Council is an industry-sponsored group that “seals” labels on food packages.

However, the 8 grams may only be a small percentage of the entire serving, and the product may also have a lot of added sugars, Zhang said.

For him The FDA will label a food as a whole grain, 51% of the total weight must be integral; the research group Association of Cereals and Grains requires 8 grams of whole grain for every 30 grams of a food; and the American Heart Association calculates the ratio of carbohydrates to fiber when defining a whole food.

“Consumers should be careful when buying whole foods,” Zhang said. “They need to look at the back of the package to check the nutrition information and determine if whole grains are at the top of the ingredient list.

What’s important is the percentage of the total grain in the food that is actually whole grain, Zhang said. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 identifies whole foods as those that contain 50% or more by weight of the grain-containing component or flour as whole grain ingredients.

So what is a whole grain?

Whole foods contain three core components.

  • The bran is the outer covering of the grain and is the main source of fiber.
  • The germ, a smaller internal structure, is a source of essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals.
  • The endosperm is the largest part of the grain and the largest constituent of white flours and breads. It provides carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins of group B.

Eating whole grain foods is important because they have been linked to a reduced risk of colorectal cancer and heart disease, Zhang said. “If we can continuously improve the consumption of whole grains in the population, the benefit would be a reduction in the burden of disease,” she added. “And that could save a lot of money on healthcare.”

To take a closer look at trends in consumption of whole foods, Zhang and his colleagues turned to dietary data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between the years 2003 and 2018. NHANES asks participants to list all foods consumed in a 24 hour period. .

For their analysis, Zhang and his colleagues focused on data from 39,755 American adults aged 20 and older. In general, the amount of whole foods consumed increased during the study period.

How do you know if it’s a whole grain?

The only way to tell if a product is truly whole grain is to look at the ingredient list, Zhang said.

If a whole grain is at the top, that means the product can truly be called a whole grain, he said.

The issues addressed in the study need to be more widely known, said Jennifer Cholewka, a metabolic support dietitian at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

“People are trying to make healthy choices, and in today’s marketplace there are a lot of health buzzwords,” said Cholewka, who was not involved in the new research.

For example, when a product is described as being made with whole grains, that doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent whole grain, Cholewka said. “What I tell my patients is to look at the nutrition label and the ingredient list.”

Whole foods include:

  • Wholemeal bread
  • Oatmeal
  • wheat pasta

There are many whole grain sources that people might not immediately think of, such as popcorn, quinoa, barley and farro, Cholewka said,

Nutritionist Samaneh Farsijani said it was a carefully done study.

“I think it’s a great study, especially since they used the NHANES data,” said Farsijani, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health. “The 24-hour food withdrawal is one of the best in terms of accurately assessing food intake.”

Farsijani recommended the USDA Dietary Guidelines “MyPlate” explainer as the best way to know how much whole grain you need to eat each day.

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