When shopping for bread for your family, you probably know that spongey, über-processed white loafs are not the most nutritious choice. Besides having been bleached white, these breads are made with refined grain flours, which fall short on fiber, protein and other nutrients naturally present in whole-grain flours. As a result, these loafs are high on the glycemic index, meaning they spike blood sugar, then cause it to crash, and not long after that, you’ll feel hungry again. This seesawing messes with the body’s insulin response and can, over time, lead to weight gain and type 2 diabetes.
OK, so if white bread is a no-go—as are white noodles, cereals, crackers and other grain-based products made with refined flours—what are the healthiest alternatives? Ideally, you want foods made with whole grains, meaning all three parts of the grain are still intact: the bran (rich in fiber and B vitamins), the germ (packed with protein, minerals and a bit of unsaturated fat) and the starchy endosperm. By contrast, refined grains have had the bran and germ stripped out, leaving only the carb-loaded, blood-sugar-jolting endosperm.
Sounds simple enough, but finding breads, tortillas, pastas, granola bars and snack foods that are truly made with whole grains—and made with enough of them to matter—can be frustratingly tricky. Food companies know that whole grains are indeed healthier—and, these days, also en vogue—so some will use crafty marketing terms on their labels to make their products appear more wholesome. Here’s what you need to know to cut through the clutter.
The whole-y grail
Once again, when scanning labels and ingredient lists, whole grain is the goal. Don’t be fooled by terms like seven-grain, 12-grain, multigrain, etc.—they say nothing about whether all those grains are whole. In reality, they are usually a mishmash of refined wheat, rice, bran, corn, amaranth and other grain flours.
More so than grain, the term whole is really what you should look for, especially on ingredients lists, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. In fact, on many ingredients lists, you’ll see simply whole-wheat flour or whole spelt flour instead of whole-grain wheat flour or whole-grain spelt flour. This is because wheat and spelt are types of grains, so it would be somewhat redundant to include both grain and wheat or spelt (although some brands choose to use both just to be crystal clear). So to recap, as long as the ingredients lists says whole followed by a grain type, the omission of the word grain is perfectly OK.
Location, location, location
Once you’ve found whole grain or whole [type of grain] in the ingredients list, next comes noticing where the terms fall on the list. This will tell you how much of the whole grain is actually in the product, since ingredients must be listed from largest amount to smallest amount by percentage of the whole shebang.
So, in the case of bread, crackers, cereal and other items made mostly of flour, it’s best if the whole grain is listed first. If it’s tacked onto the end of the list, that means the manufacturer tossed in a smidge of whole grains for good measure, likely in attempt to woo shoppers looking for a healthy product. Whichever ingredients come first, second and third on the list are what the food mainly consists of. So, for instance, if you see wheat flour (without whole in front of it) first on the list, that item is mostly made from refined wheat flour—whether or not you find whole-wheat flour at or near the end.
While ingredients lists are fairly straightforward, claims made on the front of packages can be more nebulous. For example, even those products that contain just an iota of whole grains can boast “made with whole grains” on their labels because, well, it’s a true statement. The uneducated shopper may see that phrase and think the item is healthy, but when you know you also need to read through the ingredients list to get the complete story, you’re less likely to be fooled.
Some products will claim “100 percent whole grain,” and this is a statement you can trust. It means that all of the grains used in the product are whole grains, not refined, and the ingredients list should verify this claim. If it doesn’t, if there are indeed refined grains listed, then that brand is breaking FDA rules and will very likely get busted for it.
Another real-deal seal is the Whole Grain Stamp from Oldways Whole Grains Council, an independent certifier of whole-grain products. Launched in 2005, this seal helps shoppers quickly identify verified whole-grain foods. There is the 100% Whole Grain Stamp, which means all of the grains in the product are whole and the food provides at least 16 grams of whole grains per serving. There is also the 50% Whole Grain Stamp, for items in which half the grains are whole and that deliver a minimum 8 grams per serving. Finally, the Basic Stamp is for products that offer 8 grams of whole grains but may also contain some refined grains.
To ensure you’re buying the most nutritious grain-based products for your household, always opt for whole grains over refined grains. But phrases such as “made with whole grains” and “multigrain” really don’t tell you squat. To know a whole-grain food is legit, you have to read ingredients list carefully and view front-of-package claims with a skeptical eye. The ideal product has the term whole followed by a grain listed first in the ingredients list and also bears one of the Whole Grains Council’s stamps.