The whole truth

This just in, hot off the presses from the Harvard School of Public Health: “Current standards for classifying foods as ‘whole grain’ are inconsistent and, in some cases, misleading.”


At last, someone other than me is exposing the whole grain scam. And since this time, it’s coming from Harvard, perhaps people will listen.

As you may recall, the USDA–an agency dedicated to promoting American agribusiness–recommends consuming at least three servings of whole grain products daily. And U.S. school lunch standards call for at least half of all grains served to be “whole grain.”

Needless to say, I have a lot of issues with these recommendations. (More on that in a bit.) But the main problem these Harvard researchers sought to address was the lack of one reliable benchmark for foods currently classified as “whole grain.”

As part of their investigation, the researchers assessed the value of five different whole grain standards:

  • The Whole Grain Stamp, a symbol created by the industry-funded Whole Grain Council, which requires at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving
  • Any whole grain appearing first on the ingredient list
  • Any whole grain as the primary ingredient, but without any added sugars appearing in the first three ingredients on a label
  • Use of the word “whole” before any grain on the ingredient list
  • The so-called 10:1 ratio, which stipulates no more than 10 grams of carbohydrates for every one gram of fiber

The researchers used these guidelines to identify 545 “whole grain” products–including breads, bagels, English muffins, cereals, crackers, granola and cereal bars, and chips–from two major U.S. grocers.

And wouldn’t you know? After a closer look at ingredient lists and nutrition content, they found that none of the above criteria were reliable predictors of a product’s actual healthfulness.

In fact, at least one standard was outright deceptive.

Products that carried the Whole Grain Stamp were indeed higher in fiber and lower in trans fats. But they also had a lot more sugar and calories than products without the stamp.

I’m guessing that I don’t have to point out the problem here. Because I’ve warned about this very thing for a while now.

The fact is, it doesn’t matter what’s on the label of a food product. No, a company can’t lie about the nutritional facts. But how many people actually read those?

If the label says a product’s whole grain–or low-fat, or (my favorite) a good source of protein–and it looks good, most consumers will just snatch it up into their carts without a second thought.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that grains of any nature aren’t really that healthy.

The bottom line is that they’re not meant for human consumption–much less in the amount that most Americans eat them. And they’re certainly not meant to be genetically modified.

Let me remind you that wheat, corn, and soy are all mostly genetically modified. And we do not know the health implications that may have in the long run.

But putting my gripe with grains aside for a moment, the message of this new study is an important one. Namely that, even when you think you’re doing the right thing, often times, you’re not.

Personally, I just can’t believe that we spend so much time and effort on a bunch of guidelines that are, quite frankly, confusing and meaningless. First we had the food pyramid. And now–forgive me Michelle Obama–MyPlate.

Really? Their graphics might be shiny and new. But the government’s still giving you the same bad advice.

They have this all wrong and I’ll tell you why: If you really want to be healthy, stick to foods that don’t require a label in the first place.

And if that sounds simple, well… that’s because it is.

Harvard School of Public Health. “Foods identified as ‘whole grain’ not always healthy.” 10 Jan 2013. Accessed at on February 15, 2013.