When whole grain claims turn out to be half-baked

Posted by
February 9, 2012

These are whole grains

In an apparent attempt to require a ‘grain’ of truth in labeling, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is reported to be filing a petition with the Food and Drug Administration this week to force the issue of more accurate whole grain claims on food labels.

Now while I don’t always side with CSPI, whose indiscriminate war on fats I have often considered fatuous and whose soft stance on artificial sweeteners I don’t regard as being “in the public interest,” this is one issue I can say I agree on.

According to the Whole Grains Council (and most authorities on nutrition these days), at least half our grains should be whole grains. That  may sounds easy enough to accomplish, and to read labels, we might even think that’s what we’re getting.  But the only real “rule” in this regard seems to be the one governing whole wheat bread, the legal definition of which says it must be 100 percent whole wheat. As for all those other “whole grain” claims – well, many may be half-baked, rather than the whole truth.

How to know when ‘whole grain’ means what it says

Where whole grains are concerned, it seems everyone in the food industry wants to be on the bandwagon, regardless of whether the golden grains are actually in their products or not. And that’s where vague definitions come into play, allowing manufacturers to play fast and loose with the facts that appear on their product labels.

So what exactly are “whole grains,” and where are they hiding?

Grains such as wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, quinoa, sorghum, spelt and rye can be whole grains, if — and this is the magic word here — they are in their “whole” form. So before your next trip down the aisles of confusion in the supermarket, you might want to consult the following whole grain “cheat sheet,” so you’re not the one being cheated:

Not whole grain: Enriched flour, bran, wheat germ, degerminated corn meal, wheat flour, unbleached enriched wheat flour, wheat bread;

Possibly whole grain: packages that state, “contains,” or “made with” whole grain. The trouble with that statement is it’s not apparent exactly how much whole grain is in the product. It could be half or just a dusting. Another disingenuous claim is “multigrain.” All that really means is the product is made with more than one type of grain, not necessary any whole grains.

Genuine whole grain: Products labeled “100 percent whole wheat,” wild rice, oatmeal, whole cornmeal, popcorn, and grains such as wheat, barley, amaranth and buckwheat that are listed as “whole.”

What about “stoneground”? Since there is no legal definition of that term, it’s a crap shoot.

Another trick of the trade is to make a big deal out of an insufficient amount of whole grains per serving. For example, a box of Wheat Thins says, “5g of Whole Grain per serving.” So how much are 5g? Well, in the world of whole grains, 5g ain’t nothing. The same package says we should be consuming at least 48g per day and 16g per serving. At that rate we would need to eat over three servings to get to the per serving minimum the package recommends.

So once again, – and I can’t emphasize this enough – reading the package claims will not guarantee you that you’re getting the real deal. The only way to have any idea of what you’re buying is to read the ingredient label.

HFCS name-game petition up against the wall

I’m pleased to report that the petition sent to the FDA by the Corn Refiners Association to dump the much maligned high fructose corn syrup name in favor of  the sweeter sounding “corn sugar” moniker is hitting a wall of public opposition.

While  the agency has been dragging its feet in both dealing with the petition and posting consumer comments, as of yesterday, there were over 1,700 comments appearing online, the vast majority of them highly indignant over this obvious attempt to conceal the identity of a bad actor.

As I noted in my blog at the beginning of the month, this isn’t the first time Big Corn has tried to steal the name “sugar” (see “Corn sugar, been there, done that, didn’t work). Back in the mid-’70’s, just as HFCS was trying to push “real” sugar out of the soda market, an attempt was made to have it called “corn sugar.”

The FDA rejected that try, and hopefully the agency will do the same with this one as well, and put this issue to rest once and for all. So please take a minute and add you opinion by clicking here. Your comments might just be the “tipping point” that will cause the agency to deposit this petition where it belongs – in the “round file.”