Americans are eating more whole grains, but are confused by labels, a new study finds

It’s not uncommon to see packages of bread, crackers, cereal, or pasta with a stamp on the front, advertising in large letters that they’re whole grain. In fact, they may not contain much whole grain, a new study suggests.

An analysis of two decades of data on Americans’ diets has revealed that people are increasingly choosing whole foods, but we still don’t eat enough of them in our daily diets, Tufts University researchers reported in a study published Wednesday in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

At least half of the grains eaten daily should be whole grains, according to USDA recommendations.

Part of the problem is that people can’t always tell which foods contain the healthiest amount of whole grains, previous research has found. That’s likely because — among the Food and Drug Administration, the food industry, and research groups and health care associations — there are differing definitions of what constitutes a whole grain product, the Tufts researchers noted.

A label on a food tells consumers that, as defined by the Whole Grain Council, each serving contains at least 8 grams of whole grains, said study co-author Dr. Fang Fang Zhang, interim chair of the division of nutritional epidemiology and data science at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston. The Whole Grain Council is an industry sponsored group that “stamps” the labels on food packaging.

However, the 8 grams might be just a small percentage of the entire serving, and the product might also have a lot of added sugar, Zhang said.

For the FDA to label a whole food, 51 percent of the total weight must be whole; the Cereals and Grains Association research group calls for 8 grams of whole grains for every 30 grams of food; and the American Heart Association calculates the ratio of carbohydrates to fiber in the definition of a whole grain food.

“Consumers need to be careful when they go grocery shopping for whole foods,” Zhang said. “They have to look at the back of the package to check the nutrition facts and determine if whole grains top the ingredient list.

What’s important is the percentage of the total grain in the food that is actually whole grain, Zhang said. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans identify whole foods as those containing 50 percent or more by weight of the component containing wheat or flour as whole ingredients.

So what is a whole grain?

Whole foods contain three components of the kernel.

  • Bran is the outer covering of the grain and is the main source of fiber.

  • The germ, a smaller internal structure, is a source of essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals.

  • The endosperm is the largest part of the kernel and the largest constituent in white flours and breads. Provides carbohydrates, proteins and B vitamins.

Consuming whole foods is important because they’ve been linked to a reduced risk of colorectal cancer and heart disease, Zhang said. “If we can continuously improve the consumption of whole grains in the population, the benefit would be a reduced burden of disease,” she added. “And that could save a lot of money on health care.”

To take a closer look at trends in whole food consumption, Zhang and his colleagues turned to dietary data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between the years 2003 and 2018. NHANES asks participants to list all foods consumed in a 24-hour period.

For their analysis, Zhang and his colleagues focused on data from 39,755 U.S. adults ages 20 and older. Overall, the amount of whole foods eaten increased during the study period.

How to tell if it’s a whole grain

The only way to know if a product is truly whole grain is to look at the ingredients list, Zhang said.

If a whole grain is at the top, that means the product really can be called a whole grain, he said.

The issues addressed in the study need to be more widely understood, said Jennifer Cholewka, a metabolic support dietitian at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

“People are trying to make healthy choices, and in today’s marketplace there are a lot of health buzzwords out there,” said Cholewka, who was not involved in the new research.

For example, when a product is described as being made with whole grains, that doesn’t mean it’s made from 100 percent whole grains, Cholewka said. “What I tell my patients is to look at the nutrition label and ingredient list.”

Whole foods include:

  • Wholemeal bread

  • Oatmeal

  • Wholemeal pasta

There are many sources of whole grains that people might not immediately think of, such as popcorn, quinoa, barley and farro, Cholewka said.

Nutritionist Samaneh Farsijani said it was a carefully done study.

“I think it’s a great study, especially since they used NHANES data,” said Farsijani, assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburg School of Public Health. “The 24-hour food recall is one of the best in terms of accurately assessing food intake.”

Farsijani recommended the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines “MyPlate” explainer as the best way to know how much whole grain to consume each day.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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