by Marion Nestle
Jul 30 2007

The Whole Grain Mess

Q.  Daniel from Ithaca writes: “I love whole grains as much as I love clear, honest labeling of foods. It is discouraging that even the label on some foods is misleading. I just saw a loaf of Rubschlager Wheat Bread with the WGC symbol on it. It contains: Whole wheat, enriched wheat and 2 different sweeteners. I’m not sure how this is “whole”. What if foods with the Whole Grains Council or other proclamation that it is a “Whole Grain,” contained only Whole Grains with no “enriched flour” or added sugars?”

A.  The companies would probably go out of business; they wouldn’t have a clue how to make bread without all that stuff. The Whole Grains Council is a trade association/public relations agency that uses nutrition messages about the health benefits of whole grains to promote the products of its 160 member companies. One of its goals is “To promote whole grains through a positive message about their benefits, rather than by criticizing refined grains.”

The Council takes advantage of a gap in regulations; the FDA has not defined the meaning of “whole grains” on food labels but, instead, has produced Guidance for Industry. Examples:

Question: Does the term “whole grain” mean the same as “100 percent whole grain”? If a product is labeled as “whole wheat bagel” or “whole wheat pizza,” how much whole wheat should it contain? Answer: FDA has not defined any claims concerning the grain content of foods…We recommend that products labeled with “100 percent whole grain” not contain grain ingredients other than those the agency considers to be whole grains….We note that wheat flour should not be labeled as a whole grain flour because wheat flour is a synonym of flour…However, whole wheat flour (§ 137.200) should be considered a whole grain flour because it contains all the parts of the grain, i.e., the bran, endosperm, and germ….

Question: What types of label statements about whole grains are currently permitted to be made on food products? Answer: Manufacturers can make factual statements about whole grains on the label of their products, such as “10 grams of whole grains,” “½ ounce of whole grains,” (21 CFR 101.13(i)(3)) and “100% whole grain oatmeal” (as percentage labeling under 21 CFR 102.5(b)), provided that the statements are not false or misleading under section 403(a) of the Act and do not imply a particular level of the ingredient, i.e., “high” or “excellent source.”

Translation: The Whole Grains Council is doing a bit of an end run around the FDA. Is this a public service? You decide. Check out the Bread chapter in What to Eat and enjoy whole grains!

  • Dear Marion,

    The Whole Grains Council feels strongly that our Whole Grain Stamp program is indeed a public service!

    The Whole Grains Council (WGC) has worked closely with both consumers and with the FDA and the CNPP to find effective ways to increase the amount of whole grains consumed by all Americans, for better health. In fact, we organized the WGC in 2003 specifically because — even in the face or years of urging by the public health community — whole grains consumption had barely moved upwards at all.

    The Whole Grain Stamp program we developed in partnership with health professionals, grain experts and — importantly — with the companies that make whole grain products for consumers, offers a way for rushed shoppers to easily and quickly identify products offering at least a half-serving of whole grain. At a time when forty percent of Americans eat no whole grains and average consumption hovers at around one serving daily, a product that offers at least a half serving of additional whole grain makes a sizable contribution to better health. In fact, over three-quarters of the 1400 products using the Whole Grain Stamp contain a full serving or more of whole grain in each labeled serving.

    The Whole Grain Stamp states the actual number of grams of whole grain in a serving of a product, in total compliance with FDA’s guidance that “manufacturers can make factual statements about whole grains on the label of their products, such as ’10 grams of whole grain.’ “ This approach is effective with consumers, and gives an incentive to manufacturers. We’re aware of many cases where manufacturers have reformulated products to make sure their gram number, on the Whole Grain Stamp, matched or exceeded their competitors’ numbers.

    While the Whole Grains Council fervently supports the benefits of whole grain over refined grains, most Americans prefer to transition their habits and their taste buds over time. Much as consumers switched gradually from whole milk to skim, the Whole Grain Stamp allows consumers to adjust to the fuller, nuttier taste of whole grains at their own pace. Just starting on the road to healthier food? Pick a Stamp with a lower number. Ready to be a purist? Look for the 100% Whole Grain Stamp and be assured that there is no refined grain in the product.

    Consumers faced with an all-or-nothing choice too often choose “nothing.” For years, a small number of 100% whole grain foods languished on supermarket shelves, shunned by almost all Americans. Today there has been an explosion of choices, all of which can be effectively “ranked” by the clear gram-system of the Whole Grain Stamp. This successful program has resulted in millions of Americans adding more whole grains to their daily meals and snacks.

    But don’t ask us – ask the American consumer. Just this week we received the following email from Angela W., a consumer who clearly finds the Whole Grain Stamp an honest and useful tool:

    I just want to thank your company for the work you do. When I became pregnant, I bought the book ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting’. In the book is a strong emphasis on the need to consume 6-8 servings of a variety of whole grains every day for optimal fetal health. It has been quite a bit of work for me to try and find products that not only contain whole grains, but also have them in a quantity that makes it worthwhile to purchase them. Having the ‘whole grain’ stamp has made it much easier for me to find these products. I especially like having the exact gram count per serving listed on these stamps.

    Helping time-pressured consumers identify healthy products among the 45,000 or more products in the average supermarket is a tough challenge. Experts helped us identify the reasons consumers were having difficulty identifying healthy whole grain products, and Oldways and the Whole Grains Council found a simple, workable solution. That’s why the Whole Grain Stamp program is a success, praised by nutrition experts in all sectors.

    Dun and Sara join me in sending best regards,

    Cynthia Harriman
    Director of Food and Nutrition Strategies
    Oldways / The Whole Grains Council

  • This whole grain promotion just has my eyes rolling. We never learn, do we?

    It’s as if we are back to the “low fat, non-fat, no cholesterol” days of food marketing, and that was a huge disaster! “Oh, this cereal is made with whole grain, it must be good for me” is what we are told to think. But that cereal with whole grain will be like a bowl of sugar for people who have impaired glucose metabolisms. But most people won’t know that.

    Granted, if grains are to be consumed, whole grains are definitely preferable to refined grains. But we really should be emphasizing far *less* grain grain consumption, period. Much smaller and fewer portions, if at all.

    Eating large amounts of starchy grains (especially at every meal and for snacks) just taxes the pancreas with high insulin production, causes wide blood sugar fluctuations, promotes weight gain, creates food cravings, encourages overeating, especially of junk foods, causes tooth decay, and in generall, crowds out room in the diet for more nutritionally dense foods, such as non-starchy vegetables, some fruit, and high quality fats and proteins. For those with genetic risks for T2 diabetes, high grain consumption, whole or refined, just increases the risk of developing the condition earlier. Unfortunately, the dietary advice to consume more whole grains is potentially just pushing many people towards T2 diabetes, instead of preventing it.

    The advice should be “don’t consume any refined grains and perhaps only small amounts of whole grains”. But I won’t hold my breath waiting to hear that from the diet authorities.

  • Bryan Senka

    “Whole Grain” labeling is deception of the highest order.

    Consuming a store bought product containing some whole grain flour is an entirely different thing from eating actual whole grains.

    If you want to eat whole grains, go to a bulk food store and buy some wheat berries.

  • Katherine

    This whole arguement makes my head hurt. As some one who is currently needing to make changes in their lifestyle, whether or not to include grains is a question for which I can find no clear answer on.

    Frankly at this point, I am just confused….

  • Pingback: What to Eat » Today’s question: whole grains()

  • Huh? The whole grain issue makes my hed hurt, too, but for a different reason.

    Why is it clear that grains are so great, whole or otherwise? Grains are a *very new* part of the human diet, just a tiny blip on the human food timeline. We aren’t even particularly well adapted to eat grains (many have gluten intolerance, allergies, etc.) and grains cannot be eaten at all without some form of processing (soaking, cooking, grinding, etc.).

    I know about the *epidemiological* studies that correlate grains with better health status, but that’s just a statistical correlation, as is higher levels of education, higher incomes, exercise, not smoking, taking a multi-vitamin, etc. Those studies do not *prove* or show that it is grains that confer health benefits.

    In fact, our ancient ancestors who left the hunter-gather lifestyle (without much grain in the diet) to take up an agricultural lifestyle (with a “whole” grain dominent diet) just a few thousand years ago suddenly experienced shortened height averages, dental decay, bone problems, and all sorts of new diseases (some probably due to increased population densities as well as nutritional deficiencies). There are hypotheses that the ancient Egyptian royalty (who also ate a stone ground “whole grain” based diet, had high rates of obesity, diabetes, etc. In fact, humans have just caught up to the height of their Stone Age relatives within the past 150 years or so.

    So what is so great about grains other than they are now very cheap to grow and process, have a long shelf life, and are a component of bread (which is mainly “transportation” for the good stuff) and other filling, but deficient foods? I can’t think of even one essential nutrient that is found in grains that cannot be found in other non-grain foods. And there are no *essential* carbohydrates. The body can made glucose from protein. In fact, metabolizing grains actually depletes the body’s supply of B complex vitamins and Vitamin C at a greater rate, requiring an increased intake of these nutrients. That is why the Inuit and others in the Arctic who live primarily on fat, meat and fish do not get scurvy or have Vit C deficiencies, because they do not have Vit C-depleting grain in their diet, nor do they consume many plant foods, unless there is nothing else available and necessity forces it. But British Navy seaman, who ate mostly a gruel, hardtack (dry cracker-like bread), and concentrated sugar diet with little fresh meat, got scurvy without Vitamin C supplementation on long sea voyages. They had much higher Vit C requirements due to the high grain and sugar content of their diets.

    There is little evidence that indicates that we absolutely *need* grains (sure we like them and they have become a part of culture, that that is different from nutritional *need*), but there is plenty of evidence that we can survive, in fact thrive without grains. If it is too hard to give up grains completely, they do the least damage if they are at least kept whole (to me that means not ground into flour), kept to a minimum, and properly prepared (soaked or sprouted to reduce phytates).