The most common advice any nutrition or health professional would give you is to "eat more whole grains!" Since 2005, the U.S. dietary guidelines have been recommending to substitute at least half our daily grain consumption with whole grains. It sounds reasonably simple to follow, with hundreds of whole grain products now available in the market. The bakery aisle, cereal aisle and even the snack aisle at the grocery store screams out "whole grain," "multi-grain" and "100% whole wheat." But wait -- are these products really as healthy as they claim to be?
Why whole grains?
Whole grains are basically grains with their outer protective cover (bran and germ) still intact. This cover is removed to make refined grains. Whole grains are rich in fiber, low in fat and are a good source of many vitamins and minerals. Fiber is the carbohydrate component of the grain that cannot be digested and absorbed by our small intestine. But, it is fermented completely or partially by gut bacteria in our large intestine.
Over many decades now, research has shown that fiber reduces the risk of hypertension, diabetes and sometimes cancer. It has also been shown to reduce cholesterol levels and hence reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Fiber has also been implicated in many successful weight loss plans because of its effect on satiety -- consuming small amount of food with high fiber content makes you feel more full and satiated.
In addition, whole grains are rich in many vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A, E, B, folate, magnesium and iron. Removal of the bran and germ in refined grains, strips the grains of this fiber, minerals and vitamins. Hence, there is a huge list of reasons why eating whole grains may be healthy for you.
"Whole grain" claims
Food manufacturers are really jumping on the bandwagon and marketing their products as "whole grain" or "multi-grain." But there is a catch to the claims in these labels.
The FDA has developed guidelines for "whole grains" claims. Key points from these guidelines:
- "Whole grain" and "100% whole grain" are not entirely the same. A "whole grain" product may have some whole grain content in it but FDA has no regulation as to how much.
- When the ingredients label says "wheat flour," it is synonymous with "flour" and hence has bran and germ removed. The label should list "whole wheat flour" as its ingredient for it be considered whole grain.
- Durum flour is a kind of wheat flour with a high protein content that is used to make some pastas. But its bran and germ has been removed and is not considered whole grain flour.
- Quick oats and rolled oats are whole grains. In the U.S., they are made by flattening and/or steaming oats and hence have their germ and bran intact.
But just because a product is made completely from whole grains does not necessarily make it healthy. We also need to consider its sugar, fat and calorie content.
Identifying healthy whole grain products
There are several industrial and governmental standards for identifying healthy whole grain products. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends we buy products that have total carbohydrate to fiber ratio at less than 10 to 1. Whole grain stamp is a packaging symbol for products containing at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving and is widely used by manufacturers to market their products.The USDA recommends products that have a whole grain listed as its first ingredient and no added sugars in the in the first three ingredients.
Harvard School of Public Health recently compared these different industry and government guidelines for whole grain products. They found that products with the whole grain stamp had higher levels of fiber and lower levels of fat. But they also contained a significantly higher level of sugars and calories compared to products without the stamp. Their study also showed that the recommendation by AHA proved to be the best indicator of overall healthfulness of a product. Products that met this ratio had higher fiber content and lower levels of fat, sugars and calories.
Take away message: Always, always read the ingredients list of a product to make sure it is made from whole grains. Use the nutrition facts label to make an informed decision about the relative quantities of fat, sugar, total carbohydrate, fiber and total calories. Do not just go by the color and the claims made on the front!
Srilekha Karunanithi of Kirkland is a Master's student in Nutritional Sciences at University of Washington who is training to become a Registered Dietitian. Her master’s program focuses on the influences of diet on health and how positive dietary changes help in the control and prevention of many diseases.