Three shoppers walk into a grocery store looking for the most healthful bread.
One sees a loaf labeled "Whole Wheat Bread" and drops it in her cart.
The second shopper spots a loaf of "Multigrain Bread" and heads to the checkout register.
The third shopper picks a loaf of bread that's "Made with whole grains" and decides she's made a smart choice.
So which shopper left the store with the truly healthy loaf?
The answer: None of the above.
This isn't a trick question. Rather, it illustrates the trickiness of food marketers who intentionally create confusion about what's healthful in your supermarket.
Why whole grains are better for you
True whole grain foods and products are bursting with nutty, chewy flavor and loaded with health-protective fiber. They're so much better for you than the familiar white bread and white flour baked goods most of us grew up with.
Did you realize that munching white bread and foods baked from it have the same effect on your blood sugar as eating table sugar straight from the sugar bowl? Both break down into glucose as soon as they are digested, which requires extra insulin to get them out of your bloodstream.
Whole-grain bread, on the other hand, digests far more slowly because its natural fiber slows the conversion of carbohydrates into glucose, so your blood sugar remains stable and receives a steady energy release instead of a sudden spike-and-drop.
Consuming too many refined carbohydrates is the number one cause of weight gain and Type 2 diabetes. And with a whopping 30% of the US population predicted to develop diabetes very soon, everyone should take steps to protect themselves.
Choosing whole grain foods and products can really help. In fact, you can reduce your diabetes risk by 40% just by replacing some of the fast carbs in your diet with whole grains, a recent Harvard study showed. And if you're already experiencing blood sugar problems, whole grain foods are some of the best medicine in Nature's pantry. (Full details in my book, The 30-Day Diabetes Cure.)
Good for profits; bad for health
Refining whole grains into white flour removes 80% of their 20 known nutrients. And while baked goods made from white flour won't sustain health or life, they do stick around on grocery shelves longer. This makes them great for profits, but a poor source of nutrition.
After Dr. Williams' rat experiment made headlines, consumers began to shun white bread in favor of loaves made from whole grains. Food manufacturers sniffed the trend and responded by adding brown coloring and a little bran to white flour and labeling the resulting bread "whole wheat."
To this day, many consumers remain confused. But commercial bakers couldn't fool Dr. Williams' rats. In a follow-up experiment, he fed 33 different brands of refined-flour bread - including rye, pumpernickel, and ersatz "whole wheat" - to another group of rats. They didn't fare any better than the white bread group.
We Cracked the Code
Some food marketers seek to profit from health trends by making a quick buck from confused consumers. So here's how to crack the "code words" they use on the labels of bread and baked goods. When they say their bread is…
"Whole wheat bread." Translation: This bread's flour may or may not be made from whole grain wheat. Don't rely on the product name. Look at the ingredients list. If the first ingredient is whole wheat flour, that means the flour is legally required to be ground from whole grains of wheat. It's not refined or enriched. It's the good stuff.
If the ingredient is listed simply as wheat flour or flour, then it's refined flour, according to the standard of identity for flour - and refined flour has been denuded of its nutritional benefits. Refined white flour may have brown food coloring and a bit of bran added to make it appear healthful.
If the ingredient is listed as enriched flour, the bran and germ have been removed and other nutrients have been added, but it's not anywhere near as healthful as true whole wheat flour.
"When it comes to whole grain flours," Ashley Koff, RD, (author of the book Mom Energy), says,
"True whole grain flour is made from the whole grain, pulverized--so you don't lose much in terms of nutrients. The other type, which is called enriched flour, is made when processing removes significant amounts of nutrients to make whole grain flour into white flour. The white flour is then enriched - which means a few nutrients (and often in different forms) are added back. This is the junkier and more common form of flour in food products."
"Multigrain." Translation: This means there's more than one type of grain in the product, but this is no guarantee that any of those grains are in fact "whole."
"Made with whole grain." Translation: There's an insignificant amount of whole grains in the product, but they want you to believe it's enough to be an actual health benefit. It usually isn't.
Whole-grain shopping savvy
Here are some helpful tips when shopping for whole grain products…
Choose bread and other products labeled "whole grain." Even better: Look for products labeled "100% whole grain." We love Ezekiel bread products made by Food for Life. You'll often find them in the freezer section because they are indeed a "whole" food.
Search the packaging for the "100% Whole Grain" stamp from the Whole Grains Council.
But be careful: Products emblazoned with the Whole Grain Council's "basic" stamp only provide half a serving of whole grains, so pass them by.
The "whole" truth - and nothing but
One thing you can count on: As soon as American consumers change their illin' ways and decide to eat more healthfully, some huckster will always figure out a way to make a buck off shoppers' best intentions.
By remembering the key concepts explained above, you can outsmart these marketeers and bring home whole grain goodness time and again.