Walk Talk Nutrition: whole grain vs refined

Does this label make crackers look nutritionally superior?

Does this label make crackers look nutritionally superior?

The Walk Talk Nutrition RD team discusses the current recommendations for whole grain foods.  The government thinks all foods should become whole grain.  Donna disagrees.  Kathy prefers whole grain foods for the satiety effect, which results in portion control.  Not to mention more nutrients.  They agree that the murky and complicated definition of “whole grain rich” allows food companies to hijack the concept for marketing purposes.

What are “whole grains” anyway?  A whole grain is the entire seed from the grain plant, including the outer bran husk (where most of the fiber is), the starchy interior and the germ, which contains some oils and many nutrients.  Whole grain products are made from the entire grain, such as flours or rolled cereals.  To make refined grains, such as white flour or white rice, the bran and germ are removed, which reduces the fiber and nutrient content.  The Whole Grains Council has a convenient list of which grains count, and you might be surprised at what is not on the list, such as wheat bran, oat bran and flax.  The list is strictly about grain seeds, such as wheat, barley, brown rice and more exotic grains like quinoa, teff and buckwheat.

The USDA Food and Nutrition Service has created a handy arbitrary definition of something called “whole grain rich“: the grain portion of the food must be at least 51% whole grain content.  In other words, the other 49% of the grains can be made with white flour or some other refined grain.  All grain foods used for the School Lunch Program will have to meet that criteria, from pizza dough to cereal to bread to spaghetti.

Meanwhile how do consumers tell the figurative whole grain wheat from the chaff in the grocery store?  As Kathy notes, check the ingredients list.  Look for products that list the first ingredient as whole grain.  The Ritz Crackers in the photo may say “whole wheat” and “5 grams whole grain”, but the first ingredient is refined white flour.  This is Health Halo marketing at it’s worst, and both of us hate that.

food producers pay to use this

food producers pay to use this

The Whole Grains Council has a handy stamp listed on qualifying products.  The product must contain at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving, although the amount may be higher.  The only catch is that companies pay to have their products approved.  Snack puffs, chips and other high calorie treats may end up with a Health Halo because they’re made primarily with whole grains, while some perfectly wonderful whole grain foods don’t have this stamp.  Plain generic barley or simple rolled oats or brown rice from a bin are whole grain, even without a stamp of approval.

Our bottom line: use truly whole grain products like cooked grains, cereals or whole grain flours.  Don’t be fooled by food labels that scream “whole grain!”, but are made mostly with white flour.

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