Food and Nutrition

How To Choose the Healthiest Whole Grain Foods, According to Registered Dietitians

Tehrene Firman

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You could spend hours analyzing all the bread, cereal, crackers, and other products that tout a “whole grain” label at the grocery store, but you still might not bring home the healthiest choice. And that’s not your fault. A new study showed it’s really hard to know how to choose the most nutritious whole grain products based on the packaging alone.

In a study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, 1,030 adults took a survey where they looked at photos of hypothetical and real products. After looking at the products—which had whole grain labels on the front of the packaging—and the nutrition facts and ingredients, they decided which was healthier. Up to 47 percent of respondents answered the hypothetical products incorrectly, and up to 51 percent answered the real products incorrectly. “Manufacturers have many ways to persuade you that a product has whole grain even if it doesn’t. They can tell you it’s multigrain or they can color it brown, but those signals do not really indicate the whole grain content,” said Parke Wilde, study author and food economist, in a press release.

While it might seem surprising that so many people got it wrong, it’s not at all shocking to registered dietitians. “This study highlights the nutrition education deficit in our country. We’re reliant on marketing to tell us how ‘healthy’ a food is, rather than having our own skills to discern what a whole grain even is,” says Lisa Hayim, RD, founder of The Well Necessities and Fork the Noise. “Even as an expert, it’s difficult to know how many ‘whole grains’ are in a serving. There’s certainly opportunity here for more deliberate front and back of packaging labeling.”

Since it can be incredibly hard to figure out which whole grain product is best, whether you’re shopping for bread, crackers, cereal, or other “whole grain” products, Hayim says to look for a product with the least amount of processing.

“A whole grain means the grain contains the endosperm, germ, and bran. Compared to a refined grain that will only have the endosperm. Having the whole grain stays intact—meaning the germ and bran that contain the fiber—is key for those health benefits,” she says. “If I’m not eating a single-ingredient whole grain, like brown rice or oats, and rather I’m buying a whole grain product, I want to be able to see aspects of it in the food. For example, if I’m buying a whole grain bread that has oats as its main ingredient, I like to see some of the oats and grit maintained, even if its just on the exterior.”

Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, the best-selling author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet, says it’s also important to pay attention to the wording, as marketing claims clearly don’t equal a quality product. “Don’t take marketing claims on the outside of a food package as the determining factor ion food selection,” she says. “Made with whole grains means the food contains some whole grain, but not that the food is entirely whole grain. Multigrain just means a blend of grains, refined and/or whole grain. It doesn’t mean 100 percent whole grain. Unless a marketing claim provides an actual percentage—”100 percent whole grain” is a regulated term—always look at the ingredient list to understand how much, if any, whole grain you’re actually consuming.”

All in all, Hayim says the higher up on the ingredient list you can identify a whole grain—quinoa, brown rice, barley, oats, millet, farro, sorghum, or others—the better. It’s unfortunate that you can’t trust the packing of products you bring into your home, but taking these extra steps will help keep you and your family healthy.

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