Using the Food Label to Find Whole Grain Foods
A friend of mine recently came to me with concerns about how to identify whole grain products. This particular friend of mine is a nurse working in public health who is VERY label savvy. She said, “I know if I’m having this much trouble then others are getting confused, too!” I’ve had other friends ask similar things about whole grain products, so I wrote the following post to help clear some things up and make it easier to find and eat whole grain foods.
What is a Whole Grain Food?
The term whole grain refers to a grain with the bran, germ, and endosperm still present in the same proportions as before the grain was harvested and when it was growing in the ﬁeld. All grains begin as whole grains but often become refined during processing, meaning the bran, germ and/or endosperm are stripped away. Whole grains are important to the diet because beneficial antioxidants, B vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, some protein and ﬁber are housed in the bran, germ and endosperm. When these layers are stripped off during processing/refining these beneficial nutrients are stripped off as well.
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans consider a food to be 100% whole grain if “the only grains it contains are whole grains.” Foods such as oats, brown rice, popcorn, and quinoa are always whole grain. While they do offer a host of health benefits, seeds such as ﬂax, sesame, sunﬂower and poppy, nuts, and legumes such as garbanzo and soybeans are not considered by FDA to be whole grains. While label claims such as 100% wheat, wheat flour, multi-grain, made with whole grain and contains whole grain may seem like they represent whole-grain options, they typically don’t. Also, if a product is labeled as “enriched” (such as enriched wheat flour or enriched flour) the product is not whole grain, as whole grain products do not need to be enriched since their nutrients are not lost during processing. FDA has approved two health claims related to whole grains on the food label and you can find these claims on some packages. Products stating “Diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods and low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers” or “Diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods and low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol may help reduce the risk of heart disease” must have at least 51 percent whole grain ingredients by weight, meaning at least half of the product is whole grain. Examples of what the Dietary Guidelines consider a serving of whole grains include ½ cup cooked brown rice or other cooked grain, ½ cup cooked 100% whole-grain pasta, ½ cup cooked hot cereal, such as oatmeal, 1-ounce uncooked whole grain pasta, 1 slice 100% whole grain bread, or 1 cup 100% whole grain ready-to-eat cereal.
How Much Should You Be Eating?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend most Americans consume 6 ounce-equivalents of grains per day (based on a 2,000 calorie eating pattern), with half of these, so 3 ounce-equivalents, as whole grains. The backstory on why the Dietary Guidelines made the whole grains recommendation in ounce-equivalents instead of serving sizes can be confusing so the Whole Grains Council and other organizations translate the ounce-equivalent recommendation into a recommendation to “eat at least three 16 gram servings of whole grain every day.” When looking at a food label and trying to figure out how much whole grain is in the product this can sometimes be tricky since food labels aren’t required to list the grams of whole grains on the food label.
To help consumers bridge the disconnect between public health recommendations and public health information, the Oldways Whole Grains Council developed a voluntary stamp for its members to display on food packages to help easily identify if a product is 100% whole grain or if it contains whole grains. According to Kelly Toups, Program Director at the Whole Grains Council, “Unless the product is a single, 100% whole grain product (40g of brown rice is 40g whole grains) with no other ingredients, it is often not possible to know how many grams of whole grains are in a product. This is precisely why the Whole Grain Stamp was introduced more than a decade ago, to help educate consumers about sources of whole grains and help customers compare products for whole grain content. When we determine the amount of whole grains in a product, we work with companies to track down information that isn’t available on the package.” There are two stamps manufacturers can qualify for.
- Basic Stamp. The food must contain at least 8 grams of whole grain per labeled serving. These foods can contain a lot of whole grain but won’t be considered
whole grain because they also contain extras like bran, germ, or reﬁned ﬂour.
- 100% Whole Grain Stamp. The food must contain at least 16 grams of whole grain per labeled serving or have all the grains be whole grain. These products will not contain any extra bran, germ, or refined flour.
The Whole Grain Stamps display the exact amount of whole grains in one serving of the product in the context of a 48-gram daily goal. The stamps can be found on more than 11,000 products in 55 countries, including those not frequently thought of as grain-based, such as soups, energy bars and veggie burgers. To search the full list of product categories, visit the Whole Grains Council’s Stamped Products list.
So, what does all this mean when you’re trying to find whole grain products while grocery shopping or rushing to prepare a meal at home? Check out the tips below to quickly identify whole grain products in the grocery store.
Tips for Choosing Whole Grain Products
- When using the Whole Grain Stamp as your guide (this is probably the easiest route), aim to eat at least 3 servings per day of products with the 100% Whole Grain Stamp or at least 6 servings per day of products labeled with either Whole Grain Stamp.
- Choose products with the following ingredients as the first ingredient: Amaranth, Barley, Brown or Wild Rice, Buckwheat, Bulgur, Corn and Whole Cornmeal, Emmer, Farro, Kamut®, Millet, Oatmeal and Whole Oats, Popcorn, Quinoa, Sorghum, Spelt, Teﬀ, Triticale, Whole Rye, Whole or Cracked Wheat, or Wheatberries.
- For products that don’t bear the Whole Grain Stamp, look for products labeled 100% whole grain and eat at least 3 servings per day of these foods, or look for the amount of whole grains labeled somewhere on the package and choose products labeled with 8 grams of whole grains or more per serving.
- Check the Ingredients statement on the food label and choose foods listing the whole grain either as the ﬁrst ingredient or the second ingredient right after water. Ingredients are listed from most to least by weight on food labels – so the ingredient weighing the most is listed first and the ingredient weighing the least is listed last.
Remember, just because something has a Whole Grain Stamp doesn’t automatically make it good for you. Breads and rolls are the number one source of sodium in the American diet, not because they are very high in sodium per serving but because we eat so much of them. While products such as cookies may have whole grains, they can also be laden with added sugar and saturated fat. When reading labels and trying to choose healthful products, put the number of grams of whole grains in the context of the whole label. Even better, just buy the grain itself (dry Buckwheat or Quinoa) and then cook it up with some herbs or sauté with some vegetables.
“The great thing about eating more whole grains, is that no two days have to look alike – the possibilities are endless! For breakfast, try a bowl of oatmeal with fresh blueberries and sliced almonds, a 100% whole grain English muffin spread with mashed avocado and chili flakes, or leftover quinoa topped with cinnamon, raisins, walnuts, and a splash of milk. At lunch, try a 100% whole grain pita stuffed with hummus, cut vegetables, and shredded chicken, or a spinach salad tossed with farro, apples, Manchego cheese, and chopped dates. At dinner, stir fry cooked brown rice, barley, or sorghum with teriyaki sauce, vegetables, and your choice of protein, or serve a hearty curry or chili over a fluffy bed of millet, bulgur, or quinoa. Yogurt topped with granola and berries is a delicious snack, as is 100% whole grain toast spread with peanut butter and bananas,” Toups suggests.
According to the Whole Grains Council Americans eat less than one serving of whole grains per day on average, and some studies indicate more than 40% of Americans never eat whole grains! While many Americans may not be eating enough whole grains, most typically consume larger serving sizes than what are listed on food labels, so you should be able to meet whole grain recommendations if buying the right foods to begin with (although, this could be said for any nutrient!). If you still have questions about whole grains, post them below! How do you get whole grains into your diet?