Riding the wave of the “eat more whole grains” recommendation of the newly re-leased 2005 Dietary Guidelines For Americans, food companies are now producing many new whole-grain products, which they are boldly promoting as being whole grain. But are they really?
Unfortunately, most are far from 100 percent whole grain. Nor are they necessarily healthy foods. In the cereal aisle, for example, you’ll find products like Trix, Golden Grahams, Rice Chex, and Lucky Charms with the words “WHOLE GRAIN” emblazoned on the front of the boxes.
But few of these reformulated cereals have more than 1 gram of fiber per serving, indicating that there’s not a whole lot of whole grain in the box. Sure enough, in the ingredient list you’ll find refined white flours, often described as “wheat flour” and “enriched flour,” in addition to the heavily advertised whole-grain flour.
And even if the cereals were in fact 100 percent whole-grain, many would still not be considered healthful food choices because they’re full of other ingredients that are problematic. Lucky Charms, for example, is nearly half-sugar. ”With or without whole grains, these cereals are nothing more than breakfast candy,” reported the May 2005 issue of Nutrition Action, the newsletter of the non-profit health-advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.
Similarly, bread products like new 100 percent Whole Wheat Orowheat bagels do in fact contain only whole grains, but each bagel also has 450 mg of sodium, nearly one-third the total amount of sodium recommended for the day for middle-aged and older individuals by the new 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
When scouting out healthful, whole-grain products, follow these key guidelines:
1. Never EVER believe the claims on the front of the box.
What many think are health claims are actually just marketing pitches and advertisements.
And government approved claims, like “whole grain” or “good source of whole grain,” often don’t tell you the whole story. The total amount of whole grains in these products may be a lot less than you think:
“Whole grain” on a product’s cover, for example, means that as little as 51 percent of the flour must be whole-grain.
“Multigrain” means a combination of grains, so the product could be mostly refined grains with just a pinch of whole grains.
“Good source of whole grain” is as little as 8 grams per serving.
“Excellent source of whole grain” means as little as 16 grams per serving. So a breakfast cereal, which usually weighs between 30 to 55 grams per serving, could advertise itself as an “excellent source of whole grain” when in fact only 30 to 50 percent of its grain is whole.
2. Never evaluate a product based on one item, such as its fat, cholesterol, sugar, carbohydrate, salt, or whole-grain content.
Capitalizing on the latest nutrition craze, many companies promote their products based on a single item despite other unhealthy aspects. (Remember “fat-free” foods that were full of sugar and calories?) To be truly healthy, a product must pass several criteria.
3. Always check the Nutrition Facts label.
It will help you decide how truly healthful a product is. The new South Beach Diet frozen entrees, for example, promote “good carbs” ike whole grains, but one glance at the Nutrition Facts label will tell you there are 950 to 1,350 mg of sodium per serving in each of the eight new entrees — and 1,260 to 1,530 mg of sodium in the four South Beach Diet refrigerated wraps.
That’s very high. Both the 2005 Dietary Guidelines and Institute of Medicine state that middle-aged Americans and older should not consume more than 1,500 mg of sodium for the whole day. Eating these new South Beach Diet foods on a regular basis might easily put you at risk of high blood pressure.
4. Always check the ingredient list.
Make sure that any grain is WHOLE grain, such as whole-wheat flour or sprouted whole-grain kernels. Many bread, cereal, and pasta products claim to be whole grain, but the first item or two in the ingredient list is often wheat flour, enriched flour, multi-grain flour, semolina flour, durum flour, unbleached flour, bleached flour, or even spinach flour, many of which sound healthy, but they’re all just refined white flours. Further down the list will be whole-wheat flour or bran. Scout out products that contain only whole grains, or, at the very least, list whole grains as the first ingredient.
Because ingredients are listed in descending order of weight, the lower down the label you find refined grains, the better.
Jeff Novick, M.S., R.D., L.D./N., is the Director of Nutrition for the Pritikin Longevity Center in Aventura, Florida. He is Vice President of the National Health Association Board of Directors and a Life Member of the Association.