Decoding Whole-Grain Food Labeling
By: Text: Sidney Fry, MS, RD
Walk through any supermarket and you’ll find an array of whole-grain claims on packages. But how can you tell if a product is really a whole-grain food? We’ve done the homework for you, and we've learned to always focus on the ingredient list, and not on the often-confusing health claims on the front of the package. We’ve selected some common products—crackers, chips, popcorn, cereal, baking mixes, breads, and more—and evaluated whether they’re a whole-grain food or not. Our explanations for each will help you to evaluate some of your favorite products yourself to see if they pass the whole-grains test.
YES: Touting 11 grams of whole grains per serving, these crispy thins are made with whole-grain wheat flour as the starting ingredient, and offer a generous 16 crackers per serving. Watch the sodium levels, which will creep up if you enjoy more than a serving of these crispy, salty crackers.
NO: The word “whole” is deceiving on this box of buttery snack crackers, which is made from enriched flour. Labeled as Whole Wheat and made with 5 grams of whole grains, whole-grain wheat flour is half way down the ingredients, followed by partially hydrogenated oil (a source of trans fat). You’d have to eat over 200 calories and 360 mg sodium (and likely a few grams of trans fats) to reach a full serving of whole grains.
YES: This 100% whole-grain cracker is hard to identify without any type of a front-of-label stamp of approval. Three simple ingredients: Whole-grain rye flour, sesame seeds, and salt make this cracker an excellent source for whole grains. Choose whole grains with fewer ingredients for more natural, authentic goodness.
NO: Though the claim “made with whole grains” decorates the front of the box, the first ingredient in these crackers is Enriched Flour. Whole grains and seeds come in as the third ingredient. Though visually appealing with a nice dusting of whole-grains seeds, these crackers offer zero fiber, and even less promise as a whole grain.
NO: Nestled right next to the Original Wheat Thins variety, these Artisan Snacks are made from unbleached enriched flour. While whole-grain wheat flour comes in at a close second on the ingredient list, this cheesy variety only has 5 grams of whole grains per 11-cracker serving, and quite a lengthy list of ingredients.
YES: With whole-white corn as the first ingredient, this salty snack offers half a serving of whole grains (8 grams) per 1 ounce, enough for the Whole Grains Council stamp of approval. While these tempting chips are able to call themselves whole, with at least 51% of these grains come from whole grain, there are only 6 chips in a serving, which can add up fast, along with the calories and sodium.
YES: A better whole-grain option than the Tostitos, these savory chips have 18 grams (a full serving) of whole grains per ounce. With whole corn as the first ingredient, these chips also contain a blend of whole wheat, whole oat flour and rice flour for whole-grain bulk. You get about 15 chips per serving and 3 grams of fiber, which is not a bad bang for your snack buck.
YES: As the sole ingredient, this yellow popcorn is 100% whole grain, and an excellent source for your 48 grams of whole grains per day goal. Often not labeled as “100% whole” or even “whole,” popcorn is a true whole grain. If choosing the bagged variety, read the ingredient list, as many of the marketed brand names have added salt, butter, and sugar.
YES: This pre-popped crunchy snack is 100% whole grain, another example of an “unclaimed” whole grain. With 22 grams of whole grain per 3 cup serving, this is an excellent whole-grain snack choice. With popcorn, canola oil, and salt as the three simple ingredients, you know exactly what you are getting in this bag of kettle popped goodness.
NO: Unfortunately, this super high fiber option is not a whole grain. The cereal has been striped from the germ and endosperm, which removes it from the category of whole grains. While the bran is an excellent source of fiber, antioxidants, and B vitamins, it is not a true whole grain. Don’t scratch this choice off your grocery list though. Instead, mix these Bran Buds into a 100% whole grain cereal for a healthy, low-calorie fiber boost.
YES: Though we’ve raised hesitation with the terms “multi” and “bran,” this flax cereal is a true whole grain source, with a hearty 5 grams of fiber. Whole-wheat flour is the first ingredient, while nutrient-rich wheat bran, flax, and oat bran are close to follow on the ingredient list. Though not 100%, this is a good whole-grain and fiber-rich source.
NO: These bran flakes are true to name, made from organic wheat bran. While vitamin-rich and heart-healthy, these flakes are not a whole grain, but can certainly be made part of a wholesome breakfast. Watch out for sugar and salt, which fall directly behind wheat bran and raisins on the ingredient list.
YES: With whole grain wheat as the first ingredient, this variety of raisin bran is indeed whole grain, boasting more than 27 grams of whole grain per serving. These flakes are a great way to work whole grains into your morning routine, but watch the added sugars and salt, which lend unwanted calories and sodium to each filling bowl.
YES: This 100% whole grain is one ingredient only: whole grain blue corn. Stone ground is often a misleading term, but for this cornmeal, it refers to the process used to mill the grain. This cornmeal has the bran, germ, and endosperm intact after milling, and is an excellent source of whole grains. While it is 100% whole-grain authentic, there is no “stamp” of approval to indicate its authenticity, nor is it labeled as 100%.
NO: This mix is made from enriched white corn meal, wheat flour, and degerminated white corn meal. Degermination involves the removal of the oil-rich and vitamin-packed germ from the whole grain, but yields a more shelf-stable product, which is often more desirable for food manufacturers.
NO: Like most commercial quick-cooking grits, these grits are made from white hominy, which is a form of corn that has had the hull and germ removed, and therefore, not a whole grain. Though often difficult to find, whole grain grits are slowly becoming more widely available, especially from local stone grinding mills. They are also more perishable, and are best kept in the refrigerator. If the grits are made from hominy, they are not a true whole grain.
NO: With whole-wheat flour falling second to enriched bleached flour, there isn’t enough whole-wheat in this pancake mix to be labeled as a true whole grain. But a few whole grains are better than none, and this is one of the few complete commercial baking mixes that is available with whole grains. Choose this option over the standard buttermilk for 16 grams of whole grains in every 3-4 pancakes.
YES: This product is as true to its name as the label indicates. 100% organic hard spring wheat is a 100% whole grain, with 32 grams of whole grains per serving. Germ, bran, and endosperm all remain intact, making this product 100% whole.
NO: While both the unbleached and enriched aspects of flour are good qualities, they do not indicate a whole grain. Unbleached flour is allowed to “bleach” naturally with age, while bleached flour is chemically treated to speed up the whitening process. Enriched flour is nutritionally enhanced with B vitamins, iron, and folic acid. Mix this variety with whole-wheat flour in your favorite recipes to ensure more whole-grain goodness.
NO: While this is a great source of B vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and protein, this product is not a true whole grain. As the name imparts, the germ stands alone, in its unnatural state without the bran and endosperm. For bonus nutrition, use this product as a healthy addition to other whole-grain breads, muffins, cereals, and cookies.
YES: While labeled as organic and all natural, there is no mention of whole grains on this 100% whole-grain product. Oats almost never have their bran and germ removed in processing. “Rolled” simply means steamed and flattened for quicker cooking. "Organic Rolled Oats" is the first ingredient listed, and is a true whole grain, much like popcorn, quinoa, and brown rice, even without the word Whole.
YES: Quaker is branded with the 100% Whole Grain stamp of approval and lists whole grain rolled oats as the first ingredient. It is still important to read the label, as the flavored varieties often have added sugar (the second ingredient in this particular Quaker choice), salt, and other ingredients.
NO: Sorry cookie lovers… but these oatmeal cookies are not exactly whole grain. The oats in these cookies fall far behind the enriched bleached flour, and swim amidst other unwanted ingredients such as partially hydrogenated soybean oil (a source for trans fats), high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and salt.
NO: While the front of package claims a hearty “16 grams of Whole Grain per Bagel,” the first ingredient listed is unbleached enriched wheat flour, which is far from whole. This 3.5 oz bagel may have a full serving (16 grams) of whole grains, but it breaks down into nearly 3 ½ servings of bread. Choose the 100% whole grain variety for a true whole grain, which also comes in a better-portioned mini bagel.
NO: These tortillas may carry a brown, wheat-colored hue, and have eight different grains somewhere in the ingredient list, but the first listed ingredient is bleached enriched malted wheat flour—not a whole grain. While these tortillas are a good low-calorie, high-fiber source, they also contain partially hydrogenated soybean oil (source for trans fats), and they do not contain a full serving of whole grains.
YES: These easy-to-wrap tortillas are made from whole-wheat flour. With 30 grams of whole grains per serving, this wrap carries nearly two of your suggested daily whole grain servings (16 grams per serving). Whole-wheat flour is not only the first ingredient, but it is also the only grain variety found in the wraps, making them 100%.
NO: These sandwich thins are labeled “Whole Grain White” on the front, but when you read the fine-print ingredient list, you’ll find that “unbleached enriched wheat flour” is the first ingredient. Neither “unbleached” nor “enriched” indicate a whole grain. These thins are made with “whole white wheat flour,” but it isn’t the first ingredient on the list, which makes it a less reliable source for whole grains.
YES: Surprised? Multi-Grain doesn’t always impart a true whole grain, but when you read the ingredient list you’ll find whole-wheat flour as the first ingredient. While the actual amounts are unknown, you’ll also find brown rice, oats, triticale, barley and millet farther down on the list, which are all whole grains.
NO: Though nice and brown with visible flecks of wheat, the primary grain of this bread is enriched bleached flour. With only 1g of whole grain per slice, this is not the best choice when seeking whole grain bread. Look for a variety that is labeled as 100% whole wheat and fewer ingredients.
YES: With no mentioning of the word "whole" across the front, this whole-grain bread variety is packed full of whole-grain punch. Check the label and you will find organic whole-wheat flour listed first, followed by a multitude of other whole grains including barley, oats, quinoa, millet, spelt, buckwheat, amaranth, and rye. With 3 grams of hearty fiber per slice, this is an excellent whole-grain bread choice.
YES: Tabbouleh is a Middle Eastern bulgur based salad. Bulgur is made from precooked wheat berries and is 100% whole grain. Much like popcorn, oatmeal, and millet, bulgur may often not have “whole” listed on the ingredient list. Bulgur is an excellent, quicker-cooking form of whole wheat, and substitutes well for brown rice, quinoa, and couscous.
YES: No stamp, and no mentioning of the word "whole," but don’t let this 100% whole grain go unidentified. Quinoa is one of the ancient whole grains that is now being commercially used in cereal flakes, pastas, and other processed foods. It is quick-cooking and a great addition to soups, salads, and other baked goods.
NO: Barley has a particularly tough hull or bran, and is removed in the pearling process for quicker cooking. Though extremely healthy and full of fiber, when barley is “pearled” it can no longer claim itself as a whole grain, as most of the bran has been striped from the grain. While still an excellent grain choice, pearl barley is not a true whole grain.
NO: When wild rice stands alone, it is a member of the 100% whole grain family. But this particular blend is mixed with enriched parboiled rice, and does not have enough wild rice to represent an entire serving of whole grain. The product carries the stamp, which is a good start, but a serving of this blend also carries 730mg of sodium, which is nearly 1/3 of your 2400 mg allotment.
YES: True to it’s label, this quick-cooking rice is 100% whole grain. Unlike the previous “blend,” it has 0 mg sodium and 48 grams of whole grain per serving. Parboiled simply means the rice has been boiled in the husk, and still contains all three parts of the grain. If the bran is removed, it becomes parboiled white rice, which is no longer whole grain.
YES: These blueberry breakfast waffles are made with organic whole-wheat flour. It’s always important to read the fine print, as there is no indication of whole grain on this box of waffles until you reach the ingredient list.
NO: Not even the Nutri-Grain headline can hide the fact that these waffles are made from enriched flour. While the label claims that these Eggo’s are “made with whole grains,” they aren’t made with enough to claim a full serving of whole grains. Some whole grains are better than none, so choose this option over the standard buttermilk for 8 grams of whole grains in every 2 waffles.