Today, health is a high priority for consumers. According to health officials, physicians, and dieticians incorporating more whole grains into the diet is a good way to improve health. All types of grains are good sources of complex carbohydrates, various vitamins and minerals, and are naturally low in fat. However, whole grains are a better source of nutrients such as fiber, protein, B vitamins, calcium, magnesium potassium and selenium. Therefore, eating whole grains contributes more to a person’s overall health. Choosing which whole grains to buy can, however, be difficult for consumers because of the increasing number of foods available to consumers that claim to be made from whole grains.
What Are Whole Grains?
In general, grains (sometimes called cereals) are the seeds of grasses that are cultivated for food. Whole grains contain all three edible parts of a grain: the inner germ, the middle endosperm and the outer bran covering. This makes them rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals that help fight disease. By contrast, refined grains are much less nutritious because most of their germ and bran are removed during processing.
Specific examples of whole grains include whole-wheat berries, whole-wheat bulgur, whole-wheat couscous and other strains of wheat such as kamut and spelt; brown rice (including quick cooking brown rice); corn, whole cornmeal, popcorn; oat groats, steel-cut oats, rolled oats (including quick-cooking and instant oatmeal); whole rye; hulled barley (pot, scotch, and pearled barley often have much of their bran removed); triticale; millet; teff; buckwheat, and quinoa.
Whole grains contribute to overall health, especially the cardiovascular and immune systems. Consequently, organizations in the U.S. have been promoting the benefits of whole grains. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been encouraging Americans to increase their intake of nutritious foods, especially fiber and whole grains. In 2005, the USDA issued an updated version of its food pyramid—a chart that outlines the USDA’s recommendations for daily food consumption—that increased the recommended daily servings of whole grains and fiber. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) has also encouraged Americans to increase their consumption of whole grains by publishing a whole grains fact sheet. The fact sheet—which provides simple information about the benefits of whole grains and where they can be purchased—was sent to thousands of dieticians in the U.S.
Purchasing Whole Grains
Until recently, consumers wishing to purchase whole grains had to go to a food specialty store or settle for a very limited selection at their local supermarket. In either case, products made from whole grains did not taste good. However, today, supermarket shelves are full of whole grain products and food companies have been working to improve their taste. Today, whole grain versions of cookies (Chips Ahoy, Fig Newtons), pizza dough, breakfast cereals (Cocoa Puffs) and pastas can be easily found on supermarket shelves. Furthermore, food items made from whole grains have been appearing on menus at restaurants such as Blimpie, Burger King, Olive Garden and McDonald’s. Schools and hospitals are also adding whole grain products to their daily menu choices.
One drawback of the increased availability of whole grain products is that consumers may find it more difficult to select products actually made from whole grains. Many products are packaged to look like whole grain products but are not, in fact, made from whole grains. For example, whole-wheat bread is often mistaken to be whole grain bread. However, it is possible that the wheat used to make whole-wheat bread has been processed and, as a result, the nutritional benefits of the wheat have been removed.
As the availability of whole grain products increase, so does consumer confusion. It can be difficult to tell the difference between whole grains and look-alikes, those packaged and colored to look like the healthier, whole grains. For example, wholewheat bread does not necessarily mean whole grain bread. Like white flour, whole wheat can be processed, which takes away the extra health benefits.
Reading the packaging label is the best way to determine whether a product is truly made from whole grains. The first ingredient listed on the label of a whole grain product will be a grain, such as sprouted whole wheat, popcorn, oatmeal, corn or wild rice. Also, health experts state that consumers shouldn’t assume that “whole grain” on a label means that the product does not contain refined white flour. Furthermore, it is important to distinguish between “whole wheat” and “wheat flour.” “Wheat flour” is actually refined white flour and not made from whole grains.
About two years ago, the Whole Grains Council launched a stamp program to make it easier for consumers to identify whole grain products. Nearly 800 products are now registered with the program. Products can be identified by a stamp on their packages indicating the amount of whole grains in the product. According to the USDA, a serving of whole grains is 16 grams of whole grain content. A “Good Source” stamp denotes half a serving of whole grains, while an “Excellent Source” stamp denotes a full serving of whole grains. A “100% Excellent Source” stamp contains a full serving of whole grains and does not contain any refined grains. According to nutritionists, adults should eat at least three servings of whole grains every day.
In 2006, FDA addressed the issue of labels misleading consumers about the actual whole grain content of food items by setting out guidelines as to what terms such as “whole grain,” “multi-grain,” and similar description can be applied to.
However, to date, FDA has not issued official labeling standards for the ingredients. According to FDA, the term “whole grain” can be applied to ingredients or foods that meet the Cereal Chemists’ definition of whole grain—the intact, ground or flaked grain, where the principal anatomical components of the grain (starchy endosperm, germ, bran) are present in the same relative proportion as they exist in the intact grain. The FDA considers a description of a product as “100% Whole Grain” to be false and misleading if the product contains any ingredient other than whole grains. From an enforcement standpoint, FDA indicates that it will consider the appropriateness of the statement in the entire context of the product label and its ingredients.
Increased consumer concerns about health, combined with statements from government and health professionals recommending greater consumption of whole grains, have led to increased sales of whole grain products. Sales of whole grain products rose by more than 18 percent between June 2004 and June 2005, according to market researcher ACNielsen. This increase is even more dramatic when compared with growth of less than 1% in the whole grain market from 2000 to 2004. Greater governmental oversight of whole grain products can be expected to follow this boom in sales.
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