How to Identify Whole Grain Foods

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Oh for the innocent days of sandwiches made with squishy white bread, eaten with reckless abandon and puddles of mayonnaise. Now we know better, and that's fine too. Whole grains that aren't stripped of nutrients give us fuel we need, rather than the emptier calories of their processed descendants. But alas, it's not as easy as picking healthy-sounding bread with a brownish tinge and calling it a day.

Some food manufacturers have jumped aboard the whole-grain train and devised all kinds of tricky ways to suggest that their products are "whole," when in fact, they very well might not be. Consider the "made with whole grain" language in big flashy letters on a package. "Made with whole grain" could in fact mean that it was made with one percent whole grain and the tag line would still be accurate.

Thankfully, if you know what to look for, it's not so tricky to navigate. Here are some places to start.

Look for the Whole Grains Council Stamp

One of the quickest indications that a product is rich in whole grains is the presence of a Whole Grains Council stamp. The council is a non-profit consumer advocacy group whose goal is to increase consumption of whole grains for consumers' health. As of May 2018, the Whole Grain Stamp was on more than 12,000 different products in 58 countries.

Whole grains

© Whole Grains Council

The council explains:

With the Whole Grain Stamp, finding three servings of whole grains is easy: Pick three foods with the 100% Stamp or six foods with ANY Whole Grain Stamp.
The 100% Stamp assures you that a food contains a full serving or more of whole grain in each labeled serving and that ALL the grain is whole grain, while the 50%+ Stamp and the Basic Stamp appear on products containing at least half a serving of whole grain per labeled serving.

Learn How to Read Labels

In cases where there is no guiding stamp, however, one must put on their Sherlock Holmes cap and do some label sleuthing. If it says "100% whole wheat" then you are good to go. The language below also indicates that it contains all parts of the grain:

• Whole wheat
• Whole [name of grain]
• Stoneground whole [grain]
• Brown rice
• Oats, oatmeal (including old-fashioned oatmeal, instant oatmeal)
• Wheatberries

Consider These Words With Caution

The Whole grains Council notes that the following words are accurate descriptions of the package contents, "but because some parts of the grain MAY be missing, you are likely missing the benefits of whole grains. When in doubt, don’t trust these words." Note that these words may mean whole grains, but without more clarification (like a "whole" in front of them) there is no guarantee.

• Wheat, or wheat flour
• Semolina
• Durum wheat
• Organic flour
• Stoneground
• Multigrain (may describe several whole grains or several refined grains, or a mix of both)

Avoid These Words

While ingredients like bran and wheat germ sound pretty good, they do not mean whole grains.

• Enriched flour
• Degerminated (on corn meal)
• Bran
• Wheat germ

Check the Order of Ingredients

As you likely know, ingredients are listed in the order of their proportion in the product. So if the first ingredient is "whole [something]," it is likely predominantly whole grain. "If there are two grain ingredients and only the second ingredient listed is a whole grain," the council notes, "the product may contain as little as 1% or as much as 49% whole grain (in other words, it could contain a little bit of whole grain, or nearly half)."

The only problem with the advice above is that something could have a variety of whole grains that comprise most of the product, but individually they might not make it as the top ingredient. So for example, a multi-grain bread could have 70 percent mixed whole grains and 30 percent refined flour – but if none of the whole grains individually comprise 30 percent, the refined flour would take the top spot. Which is why hopefully this product received a stamp from the Whole Grains Council to clear up the mystery.

Don't Only Consider Fiber Content

One quick indication that people rely on is checking the nutrition panel for fiber content, but this may not be the most reliable way to ascertain a product's wholeness. Some grains are naturally not that high in fiber (like rice, at 3.5 percent), while barley and bulgar ring in at closer to 15 percent – so fiber would not indicate whether or not the product is predominantly whole grain. Meanwhile, some food makers bump up the fiber content with random fiber-y things rather than actual whole grain. And while fiber is great, it is not interchangeable with whole grains.

For more, visit the Whole Grains Council.