Up to half of all US consumers are confused by whole grain labeling on food products such as cereal, bread and crackers, causing them to make fewer healthy choices when shopping, according to a study published Monday by the journal Public Health Nutrition.
A pool of over 1,000 US consumers asked to identify the healthier options based on whole grain content made the wrong choice 47 percent of the time for bread, up to 37 percent for crackers and 31 percent for cereal, the researchers said.
The findings suggest that product labels, particularly as they relate to grain content, are confusing to consumers. Terms like ‘multigrain,’ ‘contains whole grains,’ ‘honey wheat’ and ‘12-grain’ can be used to tout breads, cereals and crackers as healthier options even if the product mostly contains refined flour, explained lead researcher Parke Wilde, a professor at Tufts University’s School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that half of all grains consumed should be whole grains. Adequate intake of whole grains has been linked with reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Earlier studies have identified disparities in whole grain intake in the US, including, for example, lower intake for adolescents than for adults and lower intake for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
For their research, Wilde and his colleagues surveyed 1,030 US adults, who were shown images of real and hypothetical products created specifically for the study. The goal of the study was to find whether consumer understanding of product labels meets a legal standard for enhanced US label requirements for whole grain products.
The legal standard relates to deceptive advertising, and evidence that the labels are misleading – or likely to mislead – consumers can encourage support for changes to existing regulations.
“For example, the ingredient list is required to present the ingredients in order from highest to lowest weight, and by reading closely you can determine how high up the list the whole grain ingredients appear – but beware, the term ‘enriched’ or ‘wheat’ does not mean the ingredient has whole grains,” Wilde said in a press release.
Study participants were shown product photos with various whole grain labels on the front of the package, along with the nutrition facts label and ingredients list for each product.
The packages on the hypothetical products either had no front-of-package whole grain label or were marked with ‘multigrain,’ ‘made with whole grains’ or a whole grain stamp. The packages on the real products displayed the actual product markings, including ‘multigrain,’ ‘honey wheat,’ and ‘12 grain.’
Participants were asked to identify the healthier option for the hypothetical products or assess the whole grain content for the real products. For the hypothetical products, 53 percent of the participants selected the healthier bread option, while between 63 percent and 71 percent selected the healthier choice for crackers. Just under 70 percent chose the healthier cereal.
For real products that were not mostly composed of whole grains, up to 51 percent of respondents overstated the products’ whole grain content. The results of the study led researched to the conclusion that there is a strong legal argument that whole grain labels are misleading.