Beware of Whole Grain Inflation

Posted by Peter Smith

Subway offers sandwiches on 9-grain bread. Krispy Kreme has multigrain donuts and Dunkin Donuts offers multigrain bagels. You can find 10-grain, 12-grain, and even 15-grain breads in supermarkets. As Rob Beschizza wrote on BoingBoing, "The shelf seems to be graining under all that whole grain goodness."

What do all these claims mean? Not a whole lot.

There are indeed a dozen or so grains we eat regularly, plus some lesser-known species, like timothy and farro, or other wheat species, like spelt. "But once you get up to 16 grains, often they're counting flax or something that shouldn't be counted as a grain," Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies with the Whole Grains Council, a Boston nonprofit, told me. "If you included something like flax or soy, you would be flat-out misrepresenting and the Food and Drug Administration could crack down if they weren't busy looking for E. coli." 

Which leaves us to figure out the actual proportions of whole-grain variety. Without the council's whole grain stamp, there's little on the label indicating the percentage of each ingredient, so a wheat flour could make up 98 percent of a 9-grain bread even if the bread really does contain eight other grains.

The FDA's current labeling guidance came out in 2006, and it's interesting to note how the ascendancy of whole grains reflects a larger cultural shift that began taking hold in the 1960s and 70s. As Warren Belasco writes in Appetite for Change:

The early counterculture paid a lot of attention to white and dark breads because bread was a staple—the proverbial staff of life, hip slang for currency, and, in its white form, a longtime symbol of all that seemed banal and mass in Western culture… Bread baking was thus a ritualistic affirmation of membership in a subculture that viewed itself in direct opposition to the plastic death culture.

Certainly, the number of grains you'll find on bread labels today speaks to more than just a radical desire to drop out of an Orwellian, white-bread society. It appears to be a sign of nutritionism and the desire to quantify healthfulness by attaching precise numeric data to food. Marketers are well aware of the "unit effect" and trade on our assumption that more grains means better bread—even when we're unsure of what the figure really means.

Illustration via "Nutritional value of bread: Influence of processing, food interaction and consumer perception," adapted from "Grain Processing and Nutrition."