Health: Get the Whole Truth

When Rebecca Faill began manning the baker's hot line at King Arthur Flour Company in Norwich, Vt., she expected run-of-the-mill cooking questions, like "Why aren't my biscuits fluffy?" or "How do I convert my pancake recipe to serve 300 for the church dinner?" But over the past year, another query has moved to the fore--a more basic nutritional question: "My doctor just told me I have to eat whole grains. What does that mean?"

It's a question that consumers have been asking with increasing urgency since 2005, when the USDA's Dietary Guidelines started recommending that people eat three or more servings of whole grains a day (or, as the government slogan put it, "Make half your grains whole"). The USDA action came in response to a growing body of research showing that people who eat the most whole grains have a 20 to 40 percent reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, not to mention better colon health. The reasons for the health benefits aren't hard to fathom. Whole grains include not just the starchy interior of a kernel, but also the fibrous bran that surrounds it, together with the vitamin- and mineral-rich germ (or seed). In contrast, fluffy white refined flour--the kind in most cakes, cookies and crackers--has the highly nutritious bran and germ stripped away.

Manufacturers have taken the USDA's cue and started mixing whole grains into foods ranging from Fig Newtons to Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, and even new varieties of Wonder Bread. By some estimates, 300 new whole-grain products reached grocery-store shelves in 2005 alone. But there's one huge catch. Not all the new products are as healthful as others--and some items positioned as whole grains are outright impostors. Phrases such as "made with whole grains" tell you very little, as a mere sprinkling of whole-wheat flour could justify such a claim. Even "organic," "stone-ground" and "multigrain" are no guarantee. "Multigrain simply means it contains several types of grain," says Bonnie Liebman at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It doesn't tell you whether those grains are whole or refined."

The Whole Grains Council ( wholegrains ) has tried to help consumers sort out the confusion, with its black-and-gold stamps on product packaging. The stamp, which the council recently revamped, now states precisely how many grams of whole grains you get per serving of a given product. Directly below the stamp is the recommendation "Eat 48g or more of whole grains daily"--in other words, three 16-gram servings. But not all companies are registering their products with the council. If that's the case, then make sure the first item on the ingredients list contains the word "whole"--not "enriched" or "unbleached," both code words for refined. Another great indicator is a claim of "100 percent whole grain," which means whole-grain flour hasn't been mixed with refined. And the fewer ingredients in the product, the healthier it is likely to be; fewer ingredients mean that a higher percentage is probably whole grain.

Even better, eat actual grains, such as quinoa, wild rice and millet. That's where you'll find the greatest nutritional benefits. Lisa Hark's recent book "The Whole Grain Diet Miracle" ($24.95) includes recipes for 16 different whole grains, along with nutritional profiles of each one.

If nutritionists have one worry about this whole-grain trend, it's that consumers will now feel free to indulge in high-calorie snacks just because they're labeled "whole grain." True, says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University, the whole-grain version of Chips Ahoy! cookies is somewhat better than the regular variety. But, as she warns, whole-grain chocolate-chip cookies are still chocolate-chip cookies.