Whole Wheat and Half Truths

ByABC News via logo

N E W   Y O R K, Aug. 16, 2001 -- Think you're getting whole grains out of the turkey on wheat sandwich you had for lunch? Think again.

Doctors and nutrition experts say you should still load up on whole grain foods, but warn that many items that appear to be chock full of whole grains may not be, if you read the fine print on the food labels.

Whole grain foods tend to be high in fiber, which can reduce blood cholesterol levels and cut down on the production of substances in the body that appear to act as carcinogens and cause cancer, Good Morning America's foods contributor Sara Moulton said. Whole grain also helps keep the digestive system regular, warding off gastrointestinal tract troubles.

The USDA recommends eating a minimum of three servings of whole wheat each day, but a University of Minnesota study that appeared in the July issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that Americans average a paltry one serving of whole grain foods per day. So how do we get enough?

"You've got to read the labels, not just the packaging," Moulton said. "It's confusing because you see wheat or whole wheat in the title on the packaging of the food product and you assume it has whole grains."

But it may not. The key is making sure that the word "whole" is the first ingredient in the food item. Food label ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Look for "whole-wheat flour," "whole wheat," "whole grain wheat," "whole oat flour," "whole grain oats," or "100 percent wheat flour" as the first ingredient.

Confusing Labels

On a package of Arnold's Honey Wheat Berry bread, whole wheat is the fourth ingredient listed for the bread, which means it has very little whole wheat in it, and it is not a whole grain food. But Arnold's Whole Wheat bread has whole wheat flour as the first ingredient, meaning it is a whole grain food, because it is the dominant ingredient in the product.

There are other products that appear to be made of whole grain, even though they aren't.

For example, in Kellogg's Nutri-Grain Whole Wheat Waffles, whole wheat is the third ingredient listed. In Wheatsworth's Stone Ground Wheat Crackers, whole wheat is the fourth ingredient. And beware of tags like "multi-grain," "seven-grain" and "nutri-grain," because without whole grain as the top ingredient, they don't cut it as whole grain foods, Moulton said.

Even though the labels are tricky, the companies are in the clear in terms of the claims they make. If the product makes a health claim on the front of the package, as many do now for heart disease or cancer prevention, it needs be only 51 percent whole grain by weight.

"As long as the package doesn't say '100 percent whole grain' or '100 percent whole wheat' in the title, they are not making any false claims," Moulton said. "They can just be confusing for the consumer. And it's not bad for you but if you're looking for whole grain you've got to know what to look for."

Getting Three a Day

It's easy to get three servings of whole grain a day, in breakfast, lunch or snacks. Here are Moulton's tips:

Bread: Look for "whole" as the first ingredient, or "100 percent whole grain" in the title. If you do not like crusty bread, choose soft whole grain bread like Wonder. The crusty texture is because of the way it is baked, and is not because of the grain used.

Cereals: Cereal is also an excellent way to get whole grains into your diet. But be careful — some aren't as good as others. For example, Post Raisin Bran is a whole grain food, with whole grain as its first ingredient, but Kellogg's Raisin Bran contains no whole grains, though it does contain vitamins, minerals and bran. Other whole grain cereals include: Cheerios, Kellogg's Mini-Wheats, Quaker Toasted Oatmeal Squares and General Mills Wheat Chex. Oatmeal is another whole grain cereal, though the other hot cereals may not be.

Crackers: Triscuits is one brand that has whole wheat as its first ingredient.

Soups and Bars: Barley soups, Health Valley Breakfast Bars, and Power Bar Harvest Whole Grain Energy Bar are good sources of whole grain.

Snacks: Air-popped popcorn or microwave popcorn are made from whole grain (of corn).

Pasta and Rice: Substitute whole wheat pasta and brown rice for the other varieties.

Wheat Foods Council

American Heart Association: Reading Labels

USDA Dietary Guidelines