Eating whole grain foods is one of the healthiest ways to add more protein and fiber to your diet. It's also one of the fastest ways to get an unexpected dose of sugar and calories if you're not paying attention to the quality of the whole grain products you're buying, according to a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health.
It seems that the bright yellow "100% Whole Grain" stamp, an industry-supported seal that appears on roughly 7,500 products, may indicate that you're eating whole grains—but getting an extra dose of sugar and calories—and less fiber—along with them.
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Because whole grain foods have such a healthy halo, the rush to get them to grocery stores has exploded since 2005, when the USDA first recommended that 50 percent of your grain intake should be from whole grains. There are now 400 percent more products marketed as whole grain than there were in 2005.
How Healthy Are Whole Grain Foods?
The authors compared five whole-grain marketing schemes to find out which was the most reliable in indicating a truly healthy whole grain product. By law, any product that advertises itself as "whole grain" must be at least 51 percent whole grain by weight. The remaining 49 percent, however, can be refined grains, sugar, sodium, dyes, and other nasty ingredients (Want to know how nasty? Check out the 9 Nastiest Things in Your Supermarket).
They analyzed the nutritional content of 545 whole grain products that fell into one of the following categories:
-It carried the Whole Grain Council's "100% Whole Grain" stamp, which isn't regulated by the federal government; companies that use it pay the council a fee.
-The product had a whole grain listed as its first ingredient on the ingredients list.
-The product had a whole grain listed as its first ingredient on the ingredients list, but did not list any added sugars in the first three ingredients in that list.
-The word "whole" appeared before any ingredient in the ingredients list.
-The product met the American Heart Association's 10:1 ratio, meaning that the ratio of total carbohydrates to fiber per serving was at least 10 to 1; lower than 10 means that you're getting more fiber per serving, while a number higher than 10 means you're eating more carbs than fiber.
Products bearing the "100% Whole Grain" stamp were bested only by products for which the word "whole" appeared before any ingredient in the ingredients list as the worst in the study. They had more calories, sugar, and, in the case of products with the word "whole" anywhere in the ingredients list, almost double the heart damaging trans fats of the other products. As a final insult, products bearing the yellow stamp were among the most expensive, to boot.
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Finding Healthy Whole Grains
"Our findings call into question the usefulness of the industry-supported Whole Grain stamp and several USDA-recommended criteria available to consumers and organizations to identify healthful whole grain products," the authors write.
So what can you do? The study found that products meeting the American Heart Association's 10:1 ratio were the lowest-calorie, highest-fiber, and least likely to contain unhealthy levels of sugars. Since there's no stamp or seal to certify such products—and you don't always carry a calculator with you when you shop—your best bets for finding whole grains are:
• Read labels. Look for products that list whole grains as the first ingredient and do not list a form of sugar anywhere in the first three ingredients. Products like that came in second, right behind the American Heart Association-qualified products, in terms of calories, sugar and fiber levels.
• Eat outside the box. The best way to ensure you're getting whole grains, and nothing else, is to ditch processed grains. Stick with whole oats, brown rice, quinoa, and other grains that you cook yourself, instead of opting for processed foods. Need some hints on where to find them? Check out our list of The Healthiest Whole Grains.