Study points to consumer confusion over products' whole grain content and presents 'strong legal argument' of misleading labeling

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages / Ekaterina79
©GettyImages / Ekaterina79

Related tags whole grains Nutrition labeling

Roughly half of respondents in a recent study overstated the whole grain content of cereal, bread, and cracker products, said lead researchers at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and the NYU School of Global Public Health.

In the study​, published in Public Health Nutrition​, a nationally-representative pool of 1,030 US adults (researchers noted higher education respondents were moderately over-represented) responded to a survey with photos of both hypothetical and real products with various whole grain labels on the front of the package, along with nutrition facts labels and ingredients list for each product.

Participants were asked to identify the healthier option (for the hypothetical products) or assess the whole grain content (for the real products).

Consumer confusion over whole grain content 

Respondents were presented with a pair of hypothetical products. In each pair, one product was nutritionally superior or inferior based on the disclosed nutrition information, which included added sugar content and major ingredients (e.g. corn, salt, sugar), said researchers.

The packages on the hypothetical products either had no front-of-package whole grain label or were marked with "multigrain,""made with whole grains,"​ or a whole grain stamp.

When asked which product was “healthier,”​ 29-47% of respondents answered incorrectly (specifically, 31% incorrectly for cereal, 29-37% for crackers, 47% for bread).

WholeGrainstudy

There were 3 randomly-assigned variations of the label within each of the 3 product categories: cereal (1 Made with WG, 2 Multigrain, 3 WG stamp), crackers (1 Made with WG, 2 Multigrain, 3 WG stamp), and bread (1 Multigrain, 2 Wheat, 3 WG stamp). Each respondent received only 1 variation within each product category.

For real products, 43-51% of respondents overstated the whole grain content (specifically, 41% overstated for multigrain crackers, 43% for honey wheat bread, and 51% for 12-grain bread).

Researchers noted that consumers more accurately stated the whole grain content for an oat cereal product that was mostly composed of whole grain.

"Our study results show that many consumers cannot correctly identify the amount of whole grains or select a healthier whole grain product,” ​said lead author of the study, Parke Wilde, a food economist and professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

“Manufacturers have many ways to persuade you that a product has whole grain even if it doesn't. They can tell you it's multigrain or they can color it brown, but those signals do not really indicate the whole grain content."

‘We have a strong legal argument that whole grain labels are misleading’

The goal of the study was to assess whether consumer misunderstanding of the labels meets a legal standard (i.e. evidence that labels are actually misleading or likely to mislead) for enhanced US labeling requirements for whole grain products.

"With the results of this study, we have a strong legal argument that whole grain labels are misleading in fact. I would say when it comes to deceptive labels, 'whole grain' claims are among the worst. Even people with advanced degrees cannot figure out how much whole grain is in these products,"​ said co-author Jennifer L. Pomeranz, assistant professor of public health policy and management at NYU School of Global Public Health.

Related news

Show more

Related products

show more

Bacillus coagulans SNZ 1969

Bacillus coagulans SNZ 1969

B&D Nutritional Ingredients | 25-Jan-2023 | Technical / White Paper

Bacillus coagulans SNZ 1969TM is an exceptional probiotic strain due to its stability, 50-year history of use and efficacy supported by twenty plus publications.

How to Make Plant-Based Better for You

How to Make Plant-Based Better for You

SweeGen | 24-Jan-2023 | Technical / White Paper

Plant-based food and beverage sales are booming, thanks to a growing desire among consumers for healthier food options, with sugar among the top ingredients...

T. Hasegawa releases 2023 Flavor Trends Report

T. Hasegawa releases 2023 Flavor Trends Report

T. Hasegawa USA | 10-Jan-2023 | Insight Guide

When it comes to flavor, 2023 promises more exciting experiences in food and beverage than ever before. Analyzing the “Now, Near and Next” of consumer...

Withania Somnifera (Ashwagandha) - For Better Health

Withania Somnifera (Ashwagandha) - For Better Health

Chemical Resources (CHERESO) | 03-Jan-2023 | Technical / White Paper

Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) is one of the few herbs with significant effects on both psychological and physiological aspects of human functioning.

Related suppliers

Follow us

Products

View more

Webinars