Whole Grains = Whole Lot of Confusion

Whole Grain Cookies circa 2005

image: NY Times

Quick. What’s a whole grain? What’s a whole grain food? How do you tell if a product in the supermarket is a a good source of whole grains.

If you don’t have a good answer, you’re not alone. There is plenty of consumer confusion when it comes to translating “eat more whole grains” to actual purchase and consumption. According to a recent study by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers, there are five different government and industry standards and guidelines for whole grain consumption. Each is slightly different:

  • The Whole Grain Stamp, a food industry initiative, can be put on products with at least 8 grams of whole grains. But the product can be a calorie or sugar bomb too.
  • FDA: Any whole grain as the first listed ingredient. Again, added sugars and fats don’t matter.
  • USDA MyPlate: Any whole grain as the first ingredient without added sugars in the first three ingredients.
  • USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010: The word “whole” before any grain anywhere in the ingredient list. But that could mean only 5% of the grains in a product are whole.
  • American Heart Association: The “10:1 ratio” recommends choosing products where for every 10 grams of carbs, you’ll have at least 1 gram of fiber. That’s the ration of carb to fiber in whole grain flour.

What you need to know:

1. Whole grains are important for several reasons. They ensure your body gets fiber from its original source, not as an added nutrient to a highly processed product. But they also provide tons of additional nutrients that enriched grain products cannot.

2. A product that boasts whole grains may not necessarily be a healthy choice for you. Case in point are cereals that have added sugars and artificial colors like this one:

Lucky Charms - Whole Grains Marketing

Photo: Wishfit

3. A good way to ascertain that a sizable amount of whole grains has been used in a grain based product is that it is the first and ONLY grain ingredient listed in the ingredients. Look for a fiber content of 3 grams or more, without ingredients such as inulin listed in the ingredients.


  • Sweetwater Tom

    I have seen 100% whole wheat breads with only 2 grams of fiber per serving. They have added wheat gluten to make the bread light and fluffy, like white bread.

  • Lee

    What is the best cereal outhere for your kids?

    • http://www.fooducate.com/ Fooducate

      Look for cereals that have more than 3 grams of fiber, less than 6 grams of sugar, and no artificial colors.

    • http://twitter.com/lauren_015 Lauren Smith

      Oatmeal or muesli ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Janice-Blawat/1527764001 Janice Blawat

    I have found it more prudent to just avoid anything with grain that doesn’t look like animal food.

  • The Candid RD

    Oh wait….my Fruit Loops with whole grains aren’t really healthy?! haha
    Great post.

  • Carol H.

    Lots of good whole grains don’t have more than 3 g fiber per serving, so I wouldn’t use the fiber content as a criterion. Examples: brown rice and colored rices (e.g., black and red, containing anthocyanins — 2 g), quinoa (rounds down to 3 g), oatmeal (rounds up to 3), etc. Keep in mind that these values are based on FDA serving sizes, which are fairly small. People tend to eat more in one meal, so the fiber will actually be higher.

  • Robin@tabletalkblog.net

    My rule of thumb for cereal is 5. 5 grams of fiber or more and 5 grams of sugar or less. There are plenty of them out there. But I agree oatmeal is best. We’re experimenting with other grains as hot breakfast cereal–like bulgur.

  • Jensen_G

    So, how about those cookies in the picture? If it says 100% whole grain, then that’s really good if the other ingredients are health as well, right?

  • Martmaniscool

    Whole grain chips ahoy were introduced in 2005. Lets not jump on an 8 year old story and pretend it’s news

  • Meagh

    The breakdown of the 5 definitions were great! Thank you!