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A Whole New World Sans Confusion: FDA Defines “Whole Grain”

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Market shelves today are full of products claiming to be ‘whole grain’. Nearly 700 whole grain products were introduced in 2005, according to , a market research firm. The 700 plus whole grain products were released in 2005 for a reason – the demand is booming. In the past year, sales of foods with whole grain claims on the label shot up nearly 8 percent, according to ACNielsen.

The heightened interest in whole grains is partly due to the USDA’s new dietary guidelines released in 2005 that recommended consuming “3 or more ounce-equivalents of whole-grain products per day”. [ADBLOCKHERE]

But the guidelines over what constitutes a whole grain product were largely non-existent. Sally Squires, writing for the Washington Post notes that “…until now, there has been no official definition of whole grains and no easy way for consumers to know that cracked wheat, stone-ground wheat, ordinary wheat flour and many other seemingly whole-grain ingredients are not the real thing.”

Companies trying to cash in on the health food craze but with little inclination to institute large scale manufacturing changes instituted their own misleading branding for whole grain – “a good source of whole grains” etc. From MSNBC:

For example, Cheerios and other General Mills cereals have their own “whole grain” emblem. Companies from Bruegger’s Bagels to Snyder’s of Hanover pretzels use black-and-gold labels shaped like a postage stamp saying a product is a “good source,” an “excellent source” or a “100 percent source” of whole grains.

The FDA on February 16th issued guidelines as to what constitutes whole grain. Under the new guidelines,

Cereal grains that consist of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked caryopsis, whose principal anatomical components – the starchy endosperm, germ and bran – are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact caryopsis – should be considered a whole grain food.

From Food Consumer:

The draft guidance states that although rolled and “quick oats” can be called “whole grains” because they contain all of their bran, germ and endosperm, other widely used food products may not meet the “whole grain” definition. For example, the FDA does not consider products derived from legumes (soybeans), oilseeds (sunflower seeds) and roots (arrowroot) as “whole grains.” The draft guidance specifically recommends that pizza only be labeled as “whole grain” or “whole wheat” when its crust is made entirely from whole grain flours or whole wheat flour, respectively.

While the FDA guidelines are a good first step towards leashing the ambiguous marketing of “whole grain” products, they don’t go far enough. The phrase “whole grain” is inextricably linked in the public’s mind with healthy food and lifestyle and hence whole grain products with large amounts of sugar or fat can still be seen as healthy choices. There is a critical need to develop a more substantive labeling for food products that take into account the sugar and fat content. The other critical thing that is ignored is information about people with allergies to grains or people with celiac disease.

But overall the FDA guidelines fill an important gap in standardizing labeling for an important aspect of a healthy diet.

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  • Good piece. This is a complicated issue that the public doesn’t really understand, thanks to confusing marketing and public information campaigns.

    I wonder, will the FDA’s rulings help anyone, in any way?

  • USDA. That’s what I meant. More coffee.