How Whole Is Whole Grain?


A settlement between Sara Lee and the Center for Science in the Public Interest may lead to more accurate claims about whole grains on food labels

Hundreds of bread and cereal brands claim to be "whole grain." But how many are "wholly" made from whole grain?

Thanks to some fancy footwork by food companies, that distinction eludes most consumers. However, the difference now has tripped up one of the big food companies, Sara Lee (SLE), as well. On July 21, Sara Lee agreed to change the labels on its popular Soft & Smooth bread to make clear it is made of just 30% whole grains. That is part of a settlement with the Washington (D.C.)-based consumer advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The group had threatened to sue Sara Lee in December, saying that the "whole grain goodness" sign splashed on Soft & Smooth packaging was misleading because the bread was made primarily of refined white flour.

"The food industry's term 'made with whole grain' is actually code for made with very little or some whole grain," says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Grains for Good Health

Sara Lee spokeswoman Sara Matheu says the company had been considering the new labels as early as last fall even before meeting with the advocacy group. "We adamantly deny allegations made by CSPI," she says. "We are proud of the 10g of whole grains per serving this transitional bread offers our consumers.…The blend of whole wheat and enriched wheat flour is designed to help consumers increase their consumption of whole-grain breads without a radical change in taste and consistency."

The dispute points up the growing popularity of whole-grain breads and cereals. The whole-grains drumbeat started in the U.S. after 2001, when concerns over increasing obesity rates grew, and dieticians and nutritionists began looking for ways to improve Americans' diets. In 2003, an Agriculture Dept. analysis found that Americans were consuming an average of 10 servings of grain a day, but just a little over one serving of that was whole grain.

Since then, many studies have found that whole grains are good for health (among other things, the high-fiber content benefits the digestive tract). A study released in February by a team of researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that diets with high amounts of whole grains help achieve weight loss and reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and even lower blood pressure. "Whole grains are known to benefit the digestive system, and they also contain vitamins and minerals, which are lost when they are refined," says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University and author of several books, including Food Politics and What to Eat.

The food industry has responded with a plethora of new products that contain at least some whole grain.

Cocoa Puffs with Fiber

Consumer products researcher Mintel reports that new food products claiming to be made with "whole grains" more than doubled, to 361, in 2005, when they were recommended in dietary guidelines from the USDA. Whole-grain products rose to 633 in 2007. Another 492 such products have been launched just in the first half of this year, with breakfast cereals and baked goods topping the list.

Of course, how many of those products are made wholly from whole grain is anybody's guess.

"The food industry is notorious for making nutrition claims even when reality is far removed from the appearance, and whole grains is a classic example," says Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University. "Sara Lee, General Mills (GIS), and others will make small changes in the food and make them appear to be big."

In 2004, General Mills, maker of such popular cereals as Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs, and Lucky Charms, said it was converting its entire cereal lineup to whole grain—a claim it now makes in its ads. But few if any of the cereals are 100% made of whole grain. In some cases, the cereals consist mostly of refined flour. "After that, Cocoa Puffs went from zero grams of fiber per serving to 1g of fiber—that's how small the change was," says NYU's Nestle.

General Mills spokeswoman Heidi Geller says all the company's cereals contain at least 8g of whole grain in each serving, with its flagship Cheerios containing 23g of whole grain. Cocoa Puffs contain 10g, and Honey Nut Cheerios, 14g. However, Geller couldn't provide the percentage of whole wheat vs. processed wheat in General Mills' cereals. The USDA recommends the consumption of 48g of whole grain per day.

Massaging the Marketing

So why don't food companies just make their products with whole grains? For one thing, white flour is easier to bake and has a longer shelf life since it doesn't spoil quickly, says Nestle. Then there are the obvious differences in consumer preferences: Processed flour is lighter and softer than whole wheat. "If consumers want it, only the 100% whole grain counts as the real thing," says Nestle.

The government, for its part, is very aware of how misleading some marketing claims can be. In a statement drafted in 2006, the Food & Drug Administration recognized that consumers could be confused by unqualified "whole grain" claims for products that contain a mixture of whole grain and refined grain.

The FDA stated that manufacturers could make factual statements about the amount of whole grain in a product, including claims such as "10g of whole grains," or percentage claims such as "100% whole grain," as long as they were true.

Manufacturers have gotten around that by stating that their products are "made with whole grain," without saying exactly how much. "It's obviously not untruthful to say that a product is made with whole grain," says William Hallman, associate professor and director of the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "But the question is whether it's substantial enough to make a difference."


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