WGC Rebuts Harvard Study; Stands Behind WG Stamp
This week, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health released a study that claimed that products using the Whole Grain Stamp contain more sugar and more calories than products without the Stamp. The study suggested using a different criterion for labeling whole grain products – a ratio of 10:1 or better of carbohydrate to fiber. We'd like to use today's blog to discuss the flaws we see in this study and in this proposed alternative labeling idea.
Oldways, the parent organization of the Whole Grains Council, has partnered with the Harvard School of Public Health on many projects, including Oldways’ well-respected Mediterranean Diet Pyramid. We have great respect for the scientists there; we know that they share our goal of working for better understanding of whole grains and clearer labeling of them, which leads to better consumer health.
However, we believe so passionately in the reliability and value of the Whole Grain Stamp that we feel compelled to point out several issues with this study:
The Stamp is Reliable and Truthful
The Whole Grain Stamp reliably and truthfully labels products containing a significant amount of whole grain.
When the WG Stamp was created in 2005, our intent was to promote truth in whole grain labeling and that is what we are still doing today.
The Stamp was designed to denote the whole grain content of products and nothing more, and it has always been represented as such.
The Whole Grain Stamp has been the cornerstone of one of the most successful public health and food campaigns of our time. Consumption of whole grains rose 20% in the three years following the introduction of the Stamp. This success came from the combination of a new “rule” (2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines urging Americans to “make at least half your grains whole”) and a new “tool” (The Whole Grain Stamp). Other foods recommended in the Dietary Guidelines did not show the same success.
Inaccuracies and Data Issues
While the motivation for this research is valid, we note inaccuracies – beginning with a basic definition of "grain" and "whole grain" – that bring into serious question the study’s data and its conclusions.
The study’s definition of a “whole grain ingredient” is based on an outdated and inaccurate http://www.jacn.org/content/19/suppl_3/331S.full.pdf+html)">list of twenty-nine ingredients (including bran, psyllium husk etc.) that is no longer supported by USDA nor in line with FDA policy. The list includes 8 ingredients that are not whole grains and leaves out many others – such as hulled barley, millet, quinoa, teff, durum wheat, etc. – accepted as whole grains.
The study states that it collected data on 545 grain products. Their supplemental materials, however, list only 543 products. At least four of these (Cape Cod Sweet Mesquite Potato Chips, Great Value BBQ Potato Chips, Great Value Ripple Cut Potato Chips, and Great Value Sour Cream and Onion Potato Chips) contain no grain ingredients whatsoever (beyond a trace of modified cornstarch), and so should not be included in a study of "grain products."
The study is not representative of whole grain products with the Stamp.
Out of 543 products included in the study, only 113 using the Stamp were selected. The 113 Stamped products in the study represent only 1.7% of the products using the Stamp in the USA.
The study covered only chips, breads, cereals, bars, crackers – foods in 10 of the 49 categories in the Stamped Products database. 57% of products using the Stamp fall in categories not included in the study.
Rice and other “plain grains,” pasta, flours, oatmeal, tortillas, and many other important categories are not included in the study.
The study is skewed markedly toward products higher in sugar and calories, especially in its selection of products using the Stamp. The study itself states that, within categories, Stamped products are not higher in sugar (see blog comment below).
Overall, 22% of products using the Stamp in the USA are bars and cereals.
However, 38% of the overall products in the study were bars and cereals (categories with higher sugars); we estimate that about 68% of products in the Study using the Stamp were in these categories.
Rapid changes in the industry may have outpaced this data.
For example, 29 of the 113 Study products (26%) using the Stamp are General Mills cereals. In recent years, General Mills reduced sugar in its products on average 14% – and up to 28%, while also reducing sodium in its products.
Labeling with the 10:1 Ratio Has Drawbacks
The study’s suggested top choice – labeling as whole grains any product with a 10:1 or better ratio of carbohydrate to fiber – is an interesting concept but when applied may have severe drawbacks and unintended consequences.
Four of 14 whole grains commonly eaten would not qualify under 10:1 even in their most basic unprocessed state.
Brown rice, wild rice, sorghum, whole cornmeal do not attain the 10:1 ratio.
Many other manufactured whole grain foods – even some that are 100% whole grain and low in sugars – would not qualify under 10:1.
Many products that are 10:1 are NOT whole grain foods and in fact may contain no whole grain ingredients.
It’s possible to add isolated fibers to a product full of refined grains and sugars to reach the 10:1 ratio.
Our experience suggests FDA would find this approach misleading and unacceptable and would not allow use of the 10:1 ratio, if used on products that would not otherwise qualify as whole grains.
We have included examples of products, at the end of this blog, to illustrate this issue.
WGC's Summary Comments
The only program that can potentially improve public health is one that is widely adopted and used. The Whole Grain Stamp is now used on more than 8,000 products in 36 countries.
Our work over the past 10 years has created a whole grain labeling program that satisfies four important conditions:
It is scientifically sound,
resonates with consumers,
meets regulatory requirements,
and is used on a wide variety of products by most manufacturers
We encourage a follow up study that more accurately reflects the actual makeup of the Whole Grain Stamp program and includes the pros and cons of all approaches to whole grain labeling – including the major drawbacks of the 10:1 ratio. (Cynthia)
Contact Rachel Greenstein at 617-896-4888 or Rachel@oldwayspt.org to arrange an interview with Oldways’ Director of Food & Nutrition Strategies Cynthia Harriman.
Use of the 10:1 Ratio on Grocery Shelves
No symbol or system is perfect. There are drawbacks to the 10:1 system that must not be ignored. The largest drawback is that many whole grains – even when eaten as plain grains or whole grain flours/meals do not qualify. There are 14 whole grains most commonly eaten; four of these do not qualify as whole grains under the 10:1 system:
Sorghum (74.63:6.3=11.9), sorghum flour (77.47:6.6=11.7)
Whole grain cornmeal, yellow or white (76.89:7.3=10.5)
Wild rice (74.9:6.2=12.1)
Brown rice (76.17:3.4=22.4)
If the 10:1 system is used to assess all grain products, many products with little or no whole grain qualify – while many other products full of whole grain do not. The authors assert that the 10:1 system also helps highlight products with less sugar, but this assertion is also not consistent with products found on supermarket shelves.
Here are just a few examples in four categories. Note that products like All Bran and Barilla Plus pasta can indeed be very healthy products – they just aren’t whole grain products and should not be labeled as such.
All Bran qualifies (23:10) although it contains no whole grains
Ingredients: Wheat bran, sugar, malt flavor
NFP: 6g sugars
Erewhon Crispy Brown Rice cereal doesn’t qualify (25:1) although it’s 100% whole grain
Ingredients: Organic brown rice, organic barley malt, sea salt
NFP: 1g sugars
Special K Sea Salt Cracker Chips qualify (23:3) with only a small amount of whole grain
Ingredients: Potatoes, potato starch, brown rice flour, soybean oil, yellow corn meal, oat fiber, [2% or less of] sea salt, monoglycerides, salt, whole wheat flour, soy flour, whey
NFP: 0g sugar, 230mg sodium
Sesmark Brown Rice Thins don’t qualify (25:1) although they are 100% whole grain
Ingredients: Brown rice, expeller pressed safflower oil, salt, soybean tocopherals.
NFP: 0g sugar, 70mg sodium
WhoNu “nutrition rich cookies” Vanilla Wafers qualifies (20/3) but contains no whole grains
Ingredients: wheat flour, sugar, water, soybean oil, with mono- and di-glycerides, polydextrose, oat fiber, natural and artificial flavors, salt, baking soda soy lecithin, sucralose
NFP: 7g sugar, 100 mg sodium
Nairn’s Mixed Berry Oat Cookies don’t qualify (14/1) although they are 100% whole grain
Ingredients: Whole grain oats, demerara sugar, sustainable palm oil, inulin (from chicory root), treacle, dried cranberries, raspberry purée pieces, sea salt, natural flavoring
NFP: 3g sugar, 70mg sodium
Barilla Plus pasta qualifies (38/4) with only small amounts of whole grain
Ingredients: Semolina, grain and legume flour blend (lentils, chickpeas, flaxseed, barley, spelt, oats, egg whites, oat fiber), durum flour, [various vitamins].
NFP: sugars 2g
Tinkyàda Brown Rice Pasta doesn’t qualify (43/2) although its 1st ingredient is a whole grai
Ingredients: brown rice, rice bran, water
NFP: sugars 0g
Fiber One Country White Bread qualifies (24/6)
... although its only whole grain ingredient is less than 2% of weight
Ingredients: enriched flour bleached (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, vital wheat gluten, sugar, modified wheat starch, chicory root extract, sugarcane fiber. Contains less than 2% of the following: whole durum flour, honey, yeast, soybean oil, salt, dough conditioner, high fructose corn syrup, vinegar, guar gum, calcium propionate (preservative), monocalcium phosphate, soy lecithin.
NFP: sugar 4g, sodium 200 mg
Nature’s Own Honey 7 Grain Bread doesn’t qualify (14/1)
... although its first ingredient is a whole grain and it meets the Dietary Guidelines recommendation of 8g whole grain per slice.
Ingredients: Whole wheat flour, water, enriched flour, wheat gluten, brown sugar, honey, sunflower seed kernels, yeast, rolled oats, contains 2% of less of each of the following: salt, soybean oil, cultured wheat flour, vinegar, dough conditioners, wheat bran, rye flakes, barley flakes, soy flour, buckwheat flour, bulgur wheat, cracked wheat, triticale, yellow corn grits, millet, soy grits, ground flaxseed, brown rice flour, calcium sulfate, soy lecithin, wheat starch, enzymes.
NFP: sugar 2g, sodium 105mg