Whole grain confusion: Researchers call for clearer regulation and labeling to boost consumption
06 Dec 2022 --- The consumption of whole grain foods remains low globally, despite widespread promotion of health benefits and dietary recommendations. An Australian-based study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior has found overall confusion about whole grain foods and skepticism due to a lack of transparency and guidance on food labels.
“Without clear regulation and labeling standards, the benefits of educating consumers on how to increase whole grain intake may be lost,” says lead author Katrina Kissock, accredited practicing dietitian and researcher at the school of medical, indigenous and health sciences, University of Wollongong, Australia.
“This study supports the need for a global whole grain labeling system based on standardized definitions to help consumers make informed food purchases.”
Open questions were put forward to consumers on grain food choices and whole grain consumption, identification of whole grain foods, perception of labeling and opinions on hypothetical package labels, as part of the study.
These measurements were later evaluated by dieticians, food industry representatives, scientists, markers and regulatory personnel.
Content and marketing skepticism
The study showed overall skepticism among the participants on labeling whole grain foods.
During focus group discussions, they commented, “I don’t know what 16 g of whole grain per serving means,” or “I don’t know how much whole grain a product has to have to get a label. Does it mean 5% or 3%?”
The participants also expressed skepticism about marketing a product as “healthy,” overall labeling, health star rating and whole grain content claims.
The study showed that consumer preference was more substantial for products with the given percentage or amount of whole grain. Additionally, they tend to choose products with whole grain in the name rather than those with “contains whole grain” somewhere on the packaging.
Recently, the US Food and Drug Administration announced plans to update labeling regulations and the definition of “healthy,” as it has not been updated since 1994. The agency plans to do so based on nutritional density and science-backed health claims.
What is what?
The researchers also found a confusion and lacking overall knowledge on what whole grain is, and many participants could not explain the difference between wholemeal and whole grain. However, they point out that wholemeal bread is considered whole grain in Australia.
“I’m not 100% sure of what whole grains are. I suppose just unprocessed grain,” one participant said, while another commented: “It says wholemeal, and I don’t know if that’s the same thing as whole grain.”
Both consumers and the food industry highlighted the need for clear and consistent labeling.
The researchers also point out that increased transparency on food items may assist consumers in making wiser choices to reach the daily recommended consumption levels of whole grains.
“Without clear regulation and labeling, and adequate consumer education, the benefits of front-of-pack labeling to improve whole grain intake may be lost,” the study stresses.
“It was evident that limited consumer understanding and confusion related to whole grain foods contributed to skepticism, perceptions of healthfulness and buying decisions. Definitions, regulations and consumer education are strategies that could improve consumption of whole grain foods,” concludes Kissock.
Recently, Australia introduced the use of a certified logo on foods with 25 to 100% whole grain ingredients.
Meanwhile, a study published earlier this year contradicted prior research, arguing that refined grains consumption does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke and other diseases.
Edited by Beatrice Wihlander
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