Americans are eating more whole grains, but are still confused by food labels

Americans are eating more whole grains, but are still confused by food labels

It’s not uncommon to see packages of bread, crackers, cereal, or pasta with a stamp on the front, touting in big letters that it’s whole grain. In fact, they may not contain many real whole grains, according to a new study.

An analysis of two decades of data on Americans’ diets found that people are increasingly choosing whole-grain foods, but we’re still not getting enough in our daily diets, Tufts University researchers report. in a study published Wednesday in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. .

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

Part of the problem is that people can’t always tell which foods contain a healthier amount of whole grains, according to previous research. That’s likely because — between the Food and Drug Administration, the food industry, and research groups and health associations — there are differing definitions of what constitutes a whole-grain product, the Tufts researchers noted. .

The label on a food simply tells consumers that, according to the Whole Grain Council’s definition, each serving contains at least 8 grams of whole grains, said study co-author Dr. Fang Fang Zhang, chair by Acting Division 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 “affixes” labels to food packaging.

However, the 8 grams might only be a small percentage of the total serving, and the product might also contain a lot of added sugars, Zhang said.

For the FDA to label a whole grain food, 51% of the total weight must be whole grains; the Cereals and Grains Association research group calls for 8 grams of whole grains for every 30 grams of a food; and the American Heart Association calculates the carbohydrate to fiber ratio to define a whole grain food.

“Consumers should be careful when buying whole grain foods,” Zhang said. “They have to look on the back of the package to check the nutritional 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 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans identifies whole grain foods as those containing 50% or more by weight of the grain or flour component as whole grain ingredients.

So what is a whole grain?

Whole grain foods contain three core components.

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

Consuming whole-grain foods is important because they’ve 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 disease burden,” she added. “And it could save a lot of money on health care.”

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

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

How to tell 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 whole grain, she 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 market 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% whole grain, Cholewka said. “What I tell my patients is to look at the nutrition label and the ingredient list.”

Whole grain foods include:

  • whole wheat bread
  • groats
  • Whole grain pasta

There are many sources of whole grains 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 NHANES data,” said Farsijani, assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburg School of Public Health. . “The 24-Hour Dietary Recall 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 many whole grains should be eaten each day.

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