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Year after year, national survey data remind us that although whole grain consumption is trending up, Americans continue to fall short of recommendations. A new study supports this relationship, although the authors of the study take a roundabout and somewhat misleading way of getting there.
In a November article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers tried to measure if Americans were eating enough whole grains by classifying foods as either “whole grain” or “not whole grain” based on diﬀerent criteria. However, what the study failed to account for is that many foods today exist in that grey area, containing a mixture of whole and reﬁned or enriched grains.
By choosing to pit whole grain deﬁnitions against each other, rather than quantifying total whole grain intake, these types of studies distract us from factors that can actually make a diﬀerence in whole grain consumption. Regardless of whether or not a product meets a particular threshold of being called a “whole grain food,” foods that contain even small amounts of whole grains all contribute to overall whole grain intake. Health is not determined by one particular food. Rather, it is the combination of our foods over time.
In order to have a meaningful impact on public health, the Dietary Guidelines recommend that we get at least 48 grams of whole grain per day, which can come from any combination of whole grain or partially whole grain foods.
The way best for researchers and consumers to quantify whole grain intake is to look for the Whole Grain Stamp, which displays the gram amount of whole grain in one serving of a food. As The New York Times reported this week:
“Anyone can include the words “whole grain” on their food packaging without the food having to adhere to any strict standards… One exception is a product with the Whole Grain Stamp issued by the Whole Grains Council. One serving of any food item bearing the stamp will contain at least eight grams (or half a serving) of whole grains. If the item’s packaging has the “100 percent” stamp, all of its grain ingredients are guaranteed to be whole grain and it must contain at least 16 grams (or one serving) of whole grains per serving of the food.”
Contrary to the study’s false claim that “consumers have no method to identify products that are primarily [whole grain] foods,” identifying primarily whole grain foods with the Stamp is simple and straightforward. There are three levels of whole grain Stamp. The 100% Stamp signiﬁes that all of the grains are whole, the 50%+ Stamp signiﬁes that at least half of the grain ingredients are whole, and the Basic Stamp signiﬁes that the product has a meaningful amount of whole grain, at least 8 grams per serving, but that there might be more reﬁned grain than whole grain in that product.
Foods that are partially whole grain are an important part of the food supply because people don’t move from being reﬁned grain consumers to whole grain consumers overnight. Partially whole grain foods can be great “bridge foods” as people move along their journey to better health. Nutrition change is almost always incremental. It’s important not to let perfect be the enemy of good.
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans explicitly recommends choosing foods with at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving. The threshold for the Whole Grain Stamp is consistent with these recommendations, and research shows that most Whole Grain Stamped products far exceed that threshold in terms of whole grain content.
If you’re looking for ways that you can make a diﬀerence in whole grain intake, join us by promoting whole grain foods on social media, sharing delicious whole grain recipes and easy snack ideas, educating shoppers about how to ﬁnd whole grains with the Whole Grain Stamp, highlighting whole grains’ nutritional, environmental, and culinary beneﬁts, and planning a celebration for the upcoming Whole Day for Whole Grain in March.