To help develop good dietary habits, you should read packaged food labels, so you know what you’re eating. But you should also be aware that labels can mislead you about nutritional value and ingredients. Claims like “sugar free” or “low calorie” may not always be true. And it turns out that whole grain labels may be especially misleading, according to a study just published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

How Consumers Interpret Labels on Grain Products

Researchers from Tufts University and New York University surveyed over a thousand adults in the United States to find out how they read and interpreted food labels on grain products. They used both real and hypothetical products in their study.

The packages on the hypothetical products either had no whole grain label at all on the front, or were labeled as being “multigrain” or “made with whole grains.” Some had a whole grain stamp (a visual marker designed to help consumers make good choices). The packages on the real products displayed the actual label markings (including designations like “multigrain,” “honey wheat” and “12 grain,” even though the products did not actually contain mostly whole grains.)

After reviewing the hypothetical products, the participants were asked which ones were healthier, based on their interpretation of the labels. A significant number of the participants were wrong.

For the real products, the participants were asked how much whole grain was in the products, based on the labels. Again, many participants answered incorrectly and overstated the whole grain content.

The study demonstrates that the words printed on labels don’t always mean what we think they mean—and that misleading labels can result in poor choices at the grocery store.

“Manufacturers have many ways to persuade you that a product has whole grain even if it doesn’t. They can tell you it’s multigrain or they can color it brown, but those signals do not really indicate the whole grain content,” said co-author Parke Wilde, PhD, in a press release. Dr. Wilde is a food economist and professor at the Friedman School.

The Value of Whole Grains

“Whole grains are a great source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients in our diet,” Kristian Morey, RD, LDN, told Medical Daily. “These benefits can provide us with nourishment that helps satisfy us, steady blood sugar, lower cholesterol, and may even lower our risk of some cancers and stroke.” Ms. Morey is a clinical dietitian at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

The latest dietary guidelines issued by the government suggest that half of all grains consumed should be whole grains. But the study results show that labeling of whole grain products is confusing to consumers, which means they may be choosing products that are not as healthy as they think.

How to Choose Grain Products

According to Ms. Morey, the best way to get whole grains in your diet is through unprocessed products like whole barley, bulgur, quinoa, oats or wild rice. “A 3 to 4 oz serving per day alone meets the recommended dietary guidelines for adults,” she said.

As for processed products like bread, “the easiest way to tell if a product is really whole grain is to look for the gold whole grain stamp on the package,” said Ms. Morey.

Ms. Morey also explained that you’ll find the whole grain stamp in different forms:

  • The 100% stamp means the grain ingredients are entirely whole grain, with at least 16g of whole grain per serving.
  • The 50%+ stamp means at least half of the product’s grain ingredients are whole grain, per serving.
  • The Basic stamp (no percentage) means the product contains at least 8g of whole grain, but may contain more refined grain than whole grain overall.

You can also look at the ingredients. If the whole grain is listed at the top of the ingredients list, it’s a good sign that it has a high amount of whole grain, according to Ms. Morey.

The Take-Away

1. When you go to the grocery store, don’t be swayed by advertising—even when that advertising appears directly on food labels. At some point, we may see legal standards for labeling requirements on grain products.

2. Read the ingredients to get a better idea of what is in your food. Ingredients at the top of the list are the most prevalent.

3. With processed grain products like bread and cereal, look for the whole grain stamp and know what each version means.

4. Try to incorporate unprocessed whole grains, like quinoa, into your diet. These don’t require deciphering a label.

5. If you’re looking to improve your diet, the USDA ChooseMyPlate website is a good resource to help you plan balanced meals. The mobile app also allows you to practice good eating habits throughout the day.