When you head to the grocery store to pick up a loaf of bread, what do you reach for first? With terminology like whole wheat, whole grain, and multigrain plastered on every package, it can be difficult to know exactly what it is you’re buying.
What exactly does whole grain mean? And how is it different from whole wheat? Where does multigrain fall on the spectrum of healthy food products?
What Does it Really Mean?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for protecting public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of the nation’s food supply. As such, it is their job to regulate the manufacture, marketing, and distribution of food products. In addition to making sure that companies only use safe ingredients, the FDA also plays a role in regulating the terminology food manufacturers are allowed to use on their products.
Unfortunately, the FDA is unable to provide a specific definition for every term, phrase, or health claim made on food product packages. This gives manufacturers the freedom to fudge the truth a little bit, so it is up to you (the average consumer) to learn how to tell a healthy food product from an unhealthy one. When it comes to grain-based foods, you’ll come across a variety of different terms including the following:
- Whole wheat
- Whole grain
So, what exactly do these terms mean?
The term whole wheat refers to the wheat kernel that has been left completely intact. It hasn’t been altered or mixed with other grains. Whole grains are grains that have been harvested in their original form. They still contain the nutrient-packed bran along with the germ and the endosperm. Multigrain sounds like a healthy choice, but it simply means that a product contains multiple grain ingredients – it doesn’t necessarily mean that any of them are whole grains.
Knowing that a product is made with whole grain is not enough – you also need to know how much of the product is made with whole grains. You should also be on the lookout for claims such as, “made with whole grains.” This isn’t the same as a product made from 100 per cent whole grain.
Tips for Reading the Food Label
Knowing what terms like whole wheat and multigrain mean is a major step on the path to buying healthier food products. But you also need to know how to interpret other information on the food label. Unfortunately, food manufacturers have a lot of leeway when it comes to marketing their products and you can’t always believe what you read on the label. Furthermore, many people do not realize that the order in which the ingredients appear says a lot about the quality of the product as well.
For example, if you were to pick up a loaf of bread labeled “whole wheat,” you would expect whole wheat to be the primary ingredient. To check, simply turn the loaf over and take a look at the ingredients list – a whole wheat ingredient (such as whole wheat flour) should be near the top of the list. If you see ingredients like refined wheat flour or enriched flour, it is a safe bet that the term “whole wheat” is being used as a marketing ploy and isn’t actually an accurate description of the product.
What to Look for in a Healthy Product
When shopping for healthy grain-based food products, you need to start with the food label. Take a look at the ingredients list and make sure that whole grains or whole wheat are at the top of the list. Check for buzz words like “enriched” or “bleached” because these are indicators of a sub-par product – products that contain these ingredients are also likely to contain artificial additives such as flavors, colors, and preservatives.
In addition to checking the ingredients list, you should also take a look at the nutrition information. Choose whole-grain products that contain at least 4 grams of fiber per serving to help you achieve your 25-gram daily dietary fiber goal. Make sure the product doesn’t contain too much sodium or high levels of added sugar. Aim for less than 200mg of sodium and under 2 grams of sugar per serving. Depending what kind of product you’re buying, you may also want to check the fat content and limit your intake of saturated and trans fats.
Grains are part of a balanced diet and they provide beneficial nutrients including vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. When shopping for grain-based foods, however, you need to be mindful of marketing tactics and know how to set the healthy products apart from the rest. Choose whole-wheat and whole-grain products whenever you can.
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