Where grains are concerned, ‘whole’ often isn’t what it’s cracked up to be

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October 13, 2011

Yesterday my little neighbor Jonah announced that he had a “great” day at pre-school. “Why was it great?” I asked.

“I didn’t cry,” he replied.

I thought of Jonah and his “great” day while in the supermarket this morning, where I met a woman who was having anything but. Frustrated to the

Five grams of whole grain, wow, but what does it mean?

point of tears after several pairs of glasses had proven useless to the task, she asked if I could be of help in reading some food labels  — and in doing so sent me spinning into the the weird world of whole wheat and whole grains.

I know, not being experienced in this whole grain, whole wheat issue may sound funny to some, but when it comes to baked goods – bread, cookies, biscuits, I tend to make my own (baking bread in a machine these days is as easy as making instant potatoes – okay, that was the first example I could think of). So  helping a  fellow-explorer along in the game of “what is whole grain?” was an eye-opener – with or without glasses.

Finding bread and other bakery goods with “whole grains” sounds like a no-brainer, but due to highly confusing and false labeling, it’s a much like a maze. In 2002 the Whole Grains Council (WGC) was formed, described as a “nonprofit consumer advocacy group” which is devoted to that very issue.

Okay, we all know by now that whole grains are good for us and we need to eat more  –in fact, “at least half our grains (should be) whole grains,” according to the WGC website. But what are they and what foods provide them? Here’s what the WGC advises:

“If the first ingredient listed contains the word ‘whole’ (such as ‘whole wheat flour’ or ‘whole oats’), it is likely – but not guaranteed – that the product is predominantly whole grain. If there are two grain ingredients and only the second ingredient listed is a whole grain, the product may contain as little as  one percent or as much as 49 percent whole grain.” (in other words, it could be nearly ‘half whole’ or just a smidgen.)

“Whole grains,” the council notes,  “include grains like wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, quinoa, sorghum, spelt, rye – when these foods are eaten in their ‘whole’ form.” The world “whole” is the key here, and it’s also the area where food labels are most deceiving.

According to the WGC, when you see the words “enriched flour, bran and wheat germ (as well as the term ‘degerminated’ on corn meal) you are not seeing whole-grain foods. Terms such as “whole wheat, stoneground, brown rice and oats,” are whole-grain, containing all the nutrients of the grains used.

But here’s where it gets really tricky for the shopper. Some foods will be labeled “contains,” or “made with” whole grain, and some will use the term “wheat,” leading us to believe it’s “whole wheat” (which provides whole grain) when in fact the first ingredient is just “enriched flour.” (In parenthesis it may say “wheat flour” or say “unbleached enriched wheat flour” but that is not a whole grain.)

Take Wheat Thins® for example. To begin with, using the term “wheat” in the product name may lead us to think “whole wheat,” and in fact the frustrated shopper I was helping today was totally convinced that the prominent use of the term “wheat” meant just that. Now several Wheat Thins products do start off with “whole grain wheat flour,” but some do not, just using plain old “enriched flour” as the predominant ingredient, and adding some whole-grain flour down on the list which gives us no hint as to what percentage of whole grains are in the product. All we know for sure is that non-whole grain enriched flour is the first ingredient.

Another trick is to say just how much whole grain is in the product on the packaging. While that may be very helpful, it can also be very misleading. For example, our Wheat Thins package (made with enriched flour) says on the front “5g Whole Grain per serving.” Wow, 5g! That must be great because it’s in such big letters on the package front. Well, folks, 5 grams ain’t nothing. Look  a bit closer on the Wheat Thins package and it says we should be eating at least 48g per day and 16g per serving, meaning that even three servings of these crackers wouldn’t tally to the per serving minimums we should be consuming.

Other whole wheat-weary products include Keebler Toasteds® which say “Harvest Wheat” on the package front and also are predominantly refined “enriched flour,” with “whole grain wheat flour” listed down under the soybean oil; Breton® crackers “baked with the goodness of wheat…” but that wheat “goodness” is again enriched flour, with the whole wheat flour not appearing till after the sesame seeds and before the sugar, and Wheatsworth® which are called “stone ground wheat crackers” but start out with guess what – “enriched flour.” The “stone ground whole wheat flour” doesn’t appear till after the soybean oil and defatted wheat germ on the ingredient list.

Short of baking your own bread and crackers, which isn’t such a bad idea, if you’re looking for whole wheat and whole grains, you need to check bakery product ingredient lists carefully. The WGC says on its site that “over 40% of Americans never eat whole grains at all.” After what I saw today I can readily understand why.

We’ll have more to come on this issue. In the meantime, stay tuned for my food identity theft product of the month (it’s a doozy) and some fascinating facts about the “father” of the FDA (it’s always possible, after all, that you might  find yourself on “Jeopardy” someday). And try not to let those misleading labels reduce you to tears.