Grains of truth

A guide to shopping for healthful whole-grain foods

October 07, 2005|By KATE SHATZKIN, [SUN REPORTER ]

You're shopping for health in a hurry, and the supermarket aisles seem more than ready to accommodate.

You grab multigrain crackers, 12-grain bread that says it's "made with whole grains," a package of "oat bran" muffins and "100 percent wheat" bagels. You'll have no problem meeting the government's latest recommendation of three servings of whole grains a day, right?

Guess again.

There's a good chance that none of the items in your basket provides much in the way of whole grains. Meanwhile, some familiar whole-grain foods you may have passed by -- wild rice, oatmeal and even popcorn -- often aren't advertised as such.

"I unfortunately think consumers are still confused," said Julie Miller Jones, a professor of nutrition at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn., who has studied whole-grain consumption. "It's very complicated."

Nutrition experts and the U.S. government's most recent dietary guidelines say the distinctions are important. Research shows whole-grain foods provide essential vitamins, fiber and antioxidants that cut the risk of obesity, cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

But to impart those benefits, a grain must stay intact, including its three components: the germ, the bran and the endosperm. Refined grains often contain only the starchy endosperm.

Food companies have seized on the news, and many have incorporated whole grains into unlikely products. General Mills has reformulated its cereals to contain at least a half-serving of whole grains, including Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms. Kraft recently introduced versions of Fig Newtons and Chips Ahoy chocolate-chip cookies with whole grains.

Meanwhile, nutritional experts say, food labels have become so crowded with health messages -- about trans fats, fiber, calcium, carbohydrates and now grains -- that consumers have trouble sorting it out.

The Whole Grains Council, a group of 93 industry and commodity organizations, has tried to clear up some of the confusion by developing a stamp that identifies a good or excellent source of whole grains.

The government dietary guidelines recommend at least three 1-ounce servings of whole-grain foods a day, with each serving containing at least 16 grams of whole grains. A serving of a product the stamp identifies as a "good source" must provide at least the equivalent of a half-serving of whole grains (8 grams); the "excellent source" label denotes a full 16-gram serving.

That's a step in the right direction, says nutrition professor Jones. But she says many consumers don't know yet what the symbols mean.

So how do you sort the whole wheat from the chaff?

When in doubt, look to the small print -- the ingredients list on the back of the package.

If you don't see the words "whole wheat" or another whole grain -- such as rice, corn or oats -- in the first three or four ingredients, it's probably not a whole-grain product, said Noralyn Mills, a registered dietitian in Columbia and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

But many shoppers think items that are just labeled "wheat" qualify as whole grain, she said.

"For some reason, wheat is associated with something that's healthy," Mills said. "That doesn't mean it contains the whole kernel. You can have very dark breads that do not contain whole grains."

Other red flags:

* If the package says it's "multigrain," check the ingredients label carefully, experts said. The first ingredient is often enriched wheat flour, which is refined.

* Lots of fiber may indicate whole grain, but not always. Some foods may derive fiber from other sources. And some whole grain foods, such as rice, don't have as much fiber as whole wheat.

* Products with added bran or bran alone, such as "oat bran," are not necessarily whole grain.

* Wheat germ, while full of nutrients, also provides only part of the kernel.

* "Degermed" corn meal means the germ -- a valuable part of the kernel -- has been removed. "I think some consumers think degermed means purified," Jones said.

* Barley that has been heavily "pearled" can no longer be considered whole.

Despite the growing availability of whole-grain products, Americans, still coming off a low-carb diet craze that demonized all kinds of bread and crackers, have been slow to the table.

Experts estimate that most manage only one serving of whole grains a day, and that many people don't eat them regularly at all. But research shows that people who don't consume whole grains are at greater risk for a host of health problems.

PASS THE POPCORN, PLEASE

Kansas State University Research and Extension gives examples of a serving of whole grains:

1 slice or 1 ounce whole-grain bread

1/2 or 1 ounce whole-grain bagel (a large bagel may contain several servings)

1/2 cup cooked brown rice or whole-grain pasta

2 cups popcorn

5 to 7 small whole-grain crackers

What is a whole grain?

The Whole Grains Council, an industry group, counts the following as whole grains: amaranth, barley (lightly pearled), brown and colored rice, buckwheat, bulgur, corn and whole cornmeal, emmer, farro, grano (lightly pearled wheat), KamutM-. grain, millet, oatmeal and whole oats, popcorn, quinoa, sorghum, spelt, triticale, whole rye, whole or cracked wheat, wheat berries and wild rice.

To learn more:

mypyramid.gov, a USDA site, provides suggestions to help consumers follow the U.S. dietary guidelines.

The American Dietetic Association offers guidance about whole grains at eatright.org.

The Whole Grains Council has information at wholegrainscouncil.org.

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