Don’t be bamboozled. Just because a food has the words “whole grains” stamped across the front of its packaging does not mean it is automatically healthy. In fact, the widely spotted Whole Grain Stamp actually turned out to be pasted onto foods that were higher in calories and sugars than grain products not having the stamp, according to a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health.


When researchers collected nutrition content, ingredient lists, and Whole Grain Stamp presence from 545 packages of whole-grain products including breads, bagels, cereals, cereal bars, chips, crackers, English muffins, and granola bars, they found that grain products with the Whole Grain Stamp (a front-of-package symbol) were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, which was beneficial, but were also significantly higher in sugar and calories compared to products without the Stamp. The Whole Grain Stamp is a symbol placed onto the packaging of products containing at least eight grams of whole grains per serving and was created by the Whole Grain Council, a non-governmental organization that is supported by industry dues, reported the researchers.

The researchers also found only mixed results from using the three criteria the USDA recommends to help consumers identify healthy whole-grain foods—first, looking for foods with whole grain as the first ingredient listed; second, looking for foods with whole grain as the first ingredient that also have no added sugars among the first three ingredients; and third, looking for foods where the word “whole” appears before any grain anywhere in the ingredient list.


Overall, the researchers reported that the American Heart Association’s standard—which is to look for products containing a total-carbohydrates-to-fiber ratio of ten to one (10:1) or less—was found to most consistently indicate a whole-grain food’s healthfulness. Products meeting this ratio were found to be higher in beneficial fiber while also being lower in harmful trans fats, sugar, and sodium compared to products that did not satisfy the ten-to-one-or-less ratio. Benefits of switching from refined-grain foods to whole-grain foods may include weight loss as well as lowered risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. The USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend consuming at least three servings of whole grains a day. There is currently no one across-the-board standard for how a “whole grain” product is defined, and researchers say a consistent definition is needed.

Have You been whole-grain tricked?