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Flawed Harvard study unfairly criticizes whole grain stamp, and proposes bizarre alternative, says Whole Grains Council

1 commentBy Elaine WATSON , 11-Jan-2013
Last updated on 15-Jan-2013 at 19:43 GMT

A Harvard study questioning the value of the Whole Grain stamp is badly flawed and criticizes the scheme for “failing to do something it was never designed to do”, says the Whole Grains Council.

To add insult to injury, the study - published online ahead of print in the journal Public Health Nutrition - concludes by proposing an alternative set of criteria for identifying ‘more healthful wholegrain products’ that would “enable products containing no whole grains at all to qualify”, the Council’s director of food and nutrition strategy Cynthia Harriman told FoodNavigator-USA.

Study: ‘Consumers may be misled by the promised healthfulness that the whole grain stamp implies’

The authors of the study - researchers at Harvard School of Public Health - selected 545 grain-based products from the online shopping sites of Walmart and Stop & Shop and then analyzed them according to five different criteria recommended by USDA and others to help consumers identify whole grains in foods:

  1. Products featuring the Whole Grain Stamp, a packaging symbol for products containing at least 8g of whole grains per serving (created by the Whole Grain Council, a non-governmental organization supported by industry dues).
  2. Products with any whole grain as the first listed ingredient (recommended by the USDA's MyPlate).
  3. Products with any whole grain as the first ingredient without added sugars in the first three ingredients (also recommended by MyPlate).
  4. Products featuring the word ‘whole’ before any grain anywhere in the ingredient list (recommended by USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010).
  5. Products that meet the ‘10:1 ratio’ - a ratio of total carbohydrate to fiber of less than 10 to 1, which is approximately the ratio of carbohydrate to fiber in whole wheat flour (recommended by the American Heart Association).

Products featuring the whole grain stamp contained “significantly higher contents of sugars and energy”, said the authors, who argued that consumers “may be misled by the promised healthfulness that the [Whole grain stamp] symbol implies.

The study’s definition of a 'whole grain ingredient' is based on an outdated and inaccurate list of 29 ingredients including bran and psyllium husk that is no longer supported by USDA, says the Whole Grains Council

“Our findings call into question the usefulness of the industry-supported Whole grain stamp and several USDA-recommended criteria available to consumers and organizations to identify healthful whole grain products"

Meanwhile, the word ‘whole’ on the ingredients list was also no guarantee that the product was especially healthful, or a useful indicator of how much whole grain was in the product, they noted.

“Because the word ‘whole’ can occur anywhere in the ingredient list, this criterion selected many products that are mostly refined grains with only small amounts of whole grain."

They added: “Overall, the American Heart Association's standard proved to be the best indicator of overall healthfulness. Products meeting this ratio were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, sugar, and sodium, without higher calories than products that did not meet the ratio.”

‘Our findings call into question the usefulness of the industry-supported Whole grain stamp’

They conclude by suggesting “alternative and simpler methods” to assist consumers, food service personnel and policy makers in selecting more healthful whole grain products.

“A criterion based on a ratio of total carbohydrate to fiber ≤10:1 may represent a useful method … for identifying more healthful whole grain products. In addition, such metrics could be further codified as front-of-package labels or icons to make it easier to provide consumers... with quick and accurate health guidance they can readily use.”

Comparing apples with pears…

However, Harriman at the Whole Grains Council said the whole grains stamp was just that, a stamp indicating whether the product in question contained a meaningful amount of whole grains.

It was never intended to indicate the overall healthfulness of the product, nor would this be realistic from a regulatory perspective, she pointed out.

It is faulting the stamp for failing to do something it was never designed to do.”

Most frustrating was the fact that when the authors compared products with the whole grain stamp versus those without it, it did not compare like with like, she said.

“So they compare granola with the stamp versus bread without it, and find that the granola has more sugar. That’s hardly a surprise.”

Meanwhile, large swathes of products bearing the whole grain stamp such as pasta, oatmeal and rice were not tested, she said.

“This is not a representative sample. It only covers 10 of the 49 categories of whole grains products that we list on our stamp database.”

If the 10:1 system is used to assess grain products, many products with little or no whole grain qualify

As for the 10:1 system recommended, scores of products that do "not contain any whole grains at all" could qualify, she pointed out.

Aside from the fact that this was illogical for any whole grain icon, it would not pass regulatory muster with the FDA, she said.

There are 14 whole grains most commonly eaten; four of which [sorghum, whole grain corn meal, wild rice and brown rice] do not qualify as whole grains under the 10:1 system

“If the 10:1 system is used to assess all grain products, many products with little or no whole grain qualify – while many other products full of whole grain do not qualify.”

She added: “The authors assert that the 10:1 system also helps highlight products with less sugar, but this assertion is also not consistent.”

For example, All Bran qualifies (23:10) although it contains no whole grains and 6g of sugar per serving; whereas Erewhon Crispy Brown Rice cereal doesn’t qualify (25:1) although it’s primarily whole grain and has 1g of sugar per serving, she said.

Meanwhile, Special K Sea Salt Cracker Chips (above) qualify (23:3) although they contain only a small amount of whole grain and 230mg of sodium/serving, whereas Sesmark Brown Rice thins don’t qualify (25:1, although they are made primarily with whole grain and contain 70mg sodium/serving.

The rise and rise of whole grains

The Whole Grain stamp now features on more than 7,600 products in 35 countries, while the number of new products featuring whole grain claims rose from 164 in 2000 to 3,378 in 2011, according to data unveiled at the Whole Grains on Every Plate conference last fall.

While eligibility for the stamp starts at 8g whole grains per serving, most products featuring it now contain significantly more, with almost two-thirds now containing at least twice this amount, conference delegates were told.

Click here to read a more detailed analysis of the study by Oldways and the Whole Grains Council.

Source: Public Health Nutrition

Published online ahead of print, Jan 4, 2013, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1368980012005447  

Title: “Identifying whole grain foods: a comparison of different approaches for selecting more healthful whole grain products

Authors: Rebecca S Mozaffarian, Rebekka M Lee, Mary A Kennedy, David S Ludwig, Dariush Mozaffarian and Steven L Gortmaker

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1 comment (Comments are now closed)

a non-scientific horror story

Time to get definitions correct: fibre is a carbohydrate, resistant and slowly digested starch are fibres. Fibre and starch are so-called good carbs. Free sugars are bad/toxic carbs. Promoting whole grains as defined by the WGC is good for business but only confusing and so bad for people. The simple message should be: cereals, legumes and root vegetables which are high in starch and fibre should as it was in the past be the mainstay of people's diet with a small side-dish of meat, fish, dairy products, vegetables and fruit, and nuts. Sugars should be avoided, salt and fats reduced and all artificial synthetic concoctions banned from human and animal consumption.

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Posted by Effie Seftel
22 January 2013 | 09h49

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