Is it really a whole grain product?

Wanted to re-post this because there is a lot of confusion behind food labels and whole grain/whole wheat products If you don’t typically buy Cheez-Its or Ritz crackers as healthy snacks, don’t start now simply because some of the varieties have ‘whole grain’ or ‘whole wheat’ splashed across the front of the box.


Sure, whole grains are more nutritious – they contain all parts of the grain, including the germ and bran, and have more antioxidants and phytochemicals than refined grains. Plus the fiber helps to keep us feeling fuller, longer.

Unfortunately, it can be tricky to indentify what’s legitimately a whole grain product, since food labels can often be misleading.

Those seemingly whole grain Cheez-Its and Ritz crackers, for example, have more white flour than whole wheat flour. And with just one gram of fiber, the nutritional stats are essentially the same as the regular versions.

So how can Ritz crackers get away with screaming ‘whole wheat’ on the front of the box when there’s really more white flour than anything else? The FDA guidelines are pretty lax when it comes to whole grain labeling, and don’t mandate that products labeled as whole wheat or whole grain really are. The FDA’s guidelines simply ‘recommend’ that a product be labeled as whole grain or whole wheat only when all of the flour ingredients are entirely from whole grain or whole wheat flours. But there’s minimal enforcement or penalty if it isn’t.

Even something labeled as 100 percent whole grain doesn’t mean that it contains only whole grains. Original Wheat Thins don’t contain any refined flour, so they’re legitimately labeled as 100 percent whole grain. However, they also contain sugar, malt syrup, and invert sugar – not exactly what you’d call wholesome ingredients.

And the term multigrain simply means simply means ‘more than one grain’, but not necessarily ‘whole’ grains. Take Pepperidge Farm’s 12-grain Farmhouse bread, for example. It has 12 different grains, but unfortunately the first ingredient is unbromated unbleached enriched wheat flour (translation: white flour).

And then there’s what I consider to be one of the most confusing whole grain stats, when labels list the number of grams of whole grains in a serving. Those Cheez-Its and Ritz crackers each boast ‘5 grams of whole grain’ on the front of the box, but how many people even know that 16 grams of whole grains counts as one serving? So basically, for a 150-calorie serving of ‘made with whole grain’ Cheez-Its, you’re getting less than one-third a serving of whole grains. Not to mention, it’s can be easy to confuse this number with grams of fiber, of which these Cheez-Its have only one gram per serving.

So what can you do to ensure you’re really getting the whole grains that you think you are?

Start by checking the ingredient list for the word ‘whole’ before the names of grains, and look for products that list a whole grain as the first ingredient, indicating that it contains more of this than any other ingredient.  

Whole wheat will be listed as ‘whole’ wheat. If it just says ‘wheat’ flour, it’s white. Same goes for enriched wheat flour, unbleached wheat flour, and unbromated wheat flour – all are just white flour.

And while whole wheat is one type of whole grain, the term ‘whole grain’ also encompasses other grains like brown rice, oats, barley, buckwheat, bulgur, and corn (so even snack foods like low-fat popcorn and many baked corn chips are good sources of whole grain).

Another way to identify whole grain products is to look for the Whole Grain Council’s Whole Grain Stamp, which is used on foods that contain at least half a serving (8 grams) of whole grains. The black and yellow stamp lists the number of grams of whole grain per serving, and if all of the grain is whole grain, the stamp also includes a ‘100%’ banner.

And only products that contain at least 51 percent whole grain ingredients are allowed to use the FDA-approved health claim of “Diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods and low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.” So if you see this claim, you’ll know the product at least contains more whole grains than white.

The bottom line: When it comes to packaged foods, it’s fine to use the marketing banners and claims as a starting point, but always turn the product over to check the ingredient list and nutrition facts label to see what you’re really getting.

Molly Kimball is a registered dietitian in New Orleans. She can be reached at Comment and read more at

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