Dishonest Labeling: How to Tell if Something is Really Whole Grain

Wheat flour is exactly the same thing as white flour. Paula Figoni, author of “How Baking Works”, says that this “…can mislead consumers into thinking that it contains all the health benefits of whole wheat flour”.

Labels are misleading; none of these are certain to be whole grain:

Multi-grain                    9 grain              Whole Wheat               Cracked wheat

Stone Ground               Bran                 Wheat Germ                 Enriched Flour

100% Whole Wheat      Hearty grain      Sprouted Wheat           Healthy multigrain

Northwest Grain           Classic wheat     Mixed Grain                 Wheatberry

Wheat flour                 Made with whole grains

When it comes to whole wheat bread (rolls and buns), Title 21 FDA 21CFR136.180 says they must be listed as one of these: whole wheat, graham, entire wheat.  Anything else and it’s not whole grain.

Nor can you look at the color.  The brown color of most “wheat” products comes from either molasses or caramel food coloring.

The amount of fiber doesn’t tell you if it’s whole grain either — factory food often has added cellulose to kick up the fiber count from other ingredients, even wood.  The very definition of fast food is a lack of fiber.  Factory food is designed so you can swallow it more quickly and eat more food, so food manufacturers can make more money.  If there aren’t at least 3 grams of fiber per 28 gram serving, then don’t buy the product.

There are no standards or enforced rules that define how much whole grain is in a product labeled whole grain. The only way to be certain something is 100% whole grain is to bake at home with whole wheat flour.

Some products claim to be a “good” or “excellent” sources of whole grains.  But when you do the math, only a small portion might actually be whole grain, as little as 15%. The FDA has asked companies to stop making these claims, but compliance is voluntary.

You have to be a food detective.  “Made with whole grains” only means that some whole grain was used.  Look at the label.

  • There should be at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.  Only sometimes sawdust (labeled cellulose), bran, inulin, or guar gum are added to increase fiber content.  So you can’t count on this (*).
  • The first ingredient should be labeled whole grain flour, whole wheat flour, or steel cut oats.  Enriched flour, wheat flour, or degerminated cornmeal, are not whole grain.  If the second ingredient is whole grain flour, the product could be as little as 1% whole grain.
  • Any whole grain as the first ingredient without added sugars in the first three ingredients (also recommended by USDA’s MyPlate)
  • The “10:1 ratio,” a ratio of total carbohydrate to fiber of less than 10 to 1, which is approximately the ratio of carbohydrate to fiber in whole wheat flour (recommended by the American Heart Association’s 2020 Goals)
  • The FDA will allow a product to have a healthy heart label if at least 51% is whole grains.
  • Some companies have paid the Whole Grain Council for their seal. If there are 16 or more grams per serving it’s 100% whole grain.  Many genuine whole grain products don’t have a Whole Grain Council stamp though. However, a recent USDA study found that products with this seal, although higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, also contained significantly more sugar and calories compared to products without the Stamp.
  • Expensive, artisan bakeries are among the worst labeling offenders.  You have to ask a staff member which breads are whole grain, and it’s usually only one kind of bread, or half whole grain.  Except for Great Harvest, where about 60% are whole grain, 20% half-and-half, and 20% white bread.  Their breads and ingredients are posted at their website.

* Cellulose from cotton, wood pulp, gums and fibers are added to bread to boost fiber levels. On labels it may appear as MCC, cellulose gel, carboxymethyl cellulose, and cellulose gum.

Health claims on packages (mentions a disease)

Heart Disease & Cancer Claim “Rich in Whole Grains…May Reduce The Risk of Heart Disease,” and in small print: “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.”  The food must be low fat, sodium, and at least 51% whole grain – but not 100%.

Structure and function claims, i.e. “May promote heart health”

Any food can make this claim, no matter what the ingredients are!

False claims made by manufacturers

In 2007, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) told Sara Lee they would file a lawsuit if they continued to claim their “Made with Whole Grain White Bread”, was whole grain, since only 30% of it was. In 2008 Sara Lee made a settlement agreement with CSPI to stop making that claim.

CSPI also would like the FDA to go after Thomas’ Hearty Grains English Muffins for claiming “made with the goodness of whole grain” and “made with whole grains” despite the first ingredient being white flour, the second ingredient water, and finally whole wheat flour.


Burros, Marian. August 11, 2004. It’s Better to Be Whole Than Refined. New York Times.

Consumer Reports. September 2011. Fake Whole Grains. Consumer Reports on Health, p3.

CSPI. Dec 17, 2007. Sara Lee Accused of Whole Grain Whitewash. CSPI Litigation Unit Serves Notice of Intent to Sue Over “Whole Grain” White Bread.
CSPI. Dec 29, 2009. CSPI Urges FDA Crackdown on False & Misleading Food Labeling.
Figoni, Paula. 2007. How Baking Works: Exploring the Fundamentals of Baking Science. Chapter 5. Flour and Dough Additives and Treatments. John Wiley and Sons.

Goldis, Tamara.  May 2008.  Whole Grains. The Inside Story.  Nutrition Action Healthletter.

Harvard School of Public Health. Jan 10, 2013. Foods identified as ‘whole grain’ not always healthy.  New Standard Needed to Help Consumers, Organizations Choose Foods Rich in Whole Grains.

Nassauer, Sarah. May 4, 2011. Why Wood Pulp Makes Ice Cream Creamier. Wall Street Journal

About Alice

I've milled and baked with whole grains for many years, because whole grains are delicious, and white flour is missing the nutrition that protects you from cancer, stroke, heart disease, diabetes and many other diseases. Plus it's a good emergency food.
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