Consumers should consider whole grain products carefully

With so many whole grain products vying for consumers’ attention in supermarkets,it’s small wonder that food buyers are confused about which live up to their health claims.

A recent study by researchers at the Harvard University School of Public Health’s Prevention Research Center found at least five conflicting guidelines by industry and government groups on what constitutes “whole grain.”  In addition to fiber and nutrients, researchers examined total calories, amounts of sodium and sugar and the presence of trans fats along with the whole grain content.

More than 500 products, from breads to granola bars, were reviewed by the researchers. Those that were labeled with the whole grain stamp of the non-profit Whole Grains Council, were found to contain more sugar and higher calories, and were judged as less nutritious than food items following different standards.

In the end, the team determined that the American Heart Association (AHA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) were judged to the healthiest guidelines.

The AHA standard calls for whole grain products to have less than a 10:1 ratio of carbohydrates-to-fiber as well as less sugar, salt and trans fats. The USDA definition was judged nearly as healthy with grains listed first among ingredients, which means they have the largest content within products that also contain no added sugar.

The findings were published recently in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

Try new grains
While the whole grain research at Harvard gives some guidance to food buyers, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that consumers go beyond whole wheat and other familiar grains. Some less popular grains also offer the health benefits of high-fiber ingredients found in whole wheat products.

Quinoa, for instance, is high in protein, magnesium and iron, the academy reported. It serves as a tasty side dish that home cooks can substitute for rice, but it’s also versatile enough to be added to soups, salads and casseroles.

Buckwheat is similar to rice, while millet can be ground into flour to be used in bread, pilaf or casseroles.

Bulgur is also a good addition to bread dough and tabouli. The nutty flavor of spelt, a protein-rich grain that’s easy to digest, can be ground into flour and used in recipes that call for wheat flour.

Another source of fiber is the diet supplement Nutranet from Dr. Newton’s Naturals, a capsule that supports a healthy intestinal tract. Nutranet contains nopal cactus powders, a rich source of insoluble fiber.