You May Need A Refresher On What "Whole Grain" Means, New Study Finds

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Eliza Sullivan is an SEO editor at mindbodygreen. She writes about food, recipes, and nutrition—among other things. She studied journalism at Boston University.
Cooked Wholegrain Spaghetti

You've seen it on labels for pasta, bread, baked goods, and more—but what does that "whole grain" label really mean, and how does it affect the nutritional content?

Our differing perceptions of the meaning of "whole grain" was the subject of a new study published today by researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and NYU School of Global Public Health.

It turns out, people are pretty confused by "whole grain" and similar labels—and struggle to identify the healthiest option when asked, even with a nutrition label.

How labels can be misleading.

The researchers had the participants—a test group of just over 1,000 American adults, selected to represent the broader population—answer questions about real and hypothetical food options.

They specifically asked the participants to identify the "healthier" option and the option with a higher whole grain content, based on photos of the products that showed various whole grain labels but also the nutrition facts label and ingredients list.

For invented products, they found that 31% of participants answered incorrectly when evaluating cereals, and 47% answered incorrectly in regards to breads. For real products, they found that 43 to 51% of respondents overstated the whole grain content. Some terminologies seemed to have a particularly confusing effect in regards to multigrain crackers (41% overstated), honey wheat bread (43% overstated), and 12-grain bread (51% overstated).

"Our study results show that many consumers cannot correctly identify the amount of whole grains or select a healthier whole grain product," says Parker Wilde, Ph.D., the first author of the study and a professor at the Friedman School. "Manufacturers have many ways to persuade you that a product has whole grain even if it doesn't. They can tell you it's multigrain, or they can color it brown, but those signals do not really indicate the whole grain content."


What does "whole grain" really mean?

Given the confusing signaling of whole grain content, it makes sense that we may not really know what it means for something to be whole grain.

A good place to start is hammering out the difference between "whole wheat" and "whole grain" products. According to Maggie Moon, M.S., R.D., it comes down to how specific the label is: "Whole wheat is always whole grain, but whole grain doesn't always mean whole wheat," she told mindbodygreen.

Whole grain products are also generally less processed—the grain is literally left whole, meaning it still contains the whole kernel and thus the whole nutritional spectrum of the grain. According to functional medicine doctor and registered dietitian Elizabeth Boham, M.D., M.S., R.D., "these germ and bran are rich in fiber, minerals, vitamins, and phytochemicals."

While it might seem strange, you can also have gluten-free whole grain products—since there's plenty of whole grains that are gluten-free. And while diets like the ketogenic diet may have you turning away from grains altogether, whole grains as are essential macronutrients in other popular diets, the Mediterranean diet, in particular.

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