The Whole-Grain Truth

By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D, M.P.H., R.D.

Confusion in the cereal aisle? You’re not alone

The other morning, my husband joined me at the kitchen table and poured himself a bowl of cereal. He added milk, took a bite, looked at me incredulously and said, “You’ve got to be kidding! This stuff tastes like cardboard.” Mark is the kind of guy who will eat just about anything, so I knew this was trouble. The box sitting between us, with its description of the “fiber twigs” within, should have given me an inkling that he would object.

I rely on cereal to help incorporate plenty of whole grains and fiber into my diet, and I was sure I had hit nutritional gold with this one: whole grains, 10 grams of fiber and a fine taste (at least to me), especially when mixed with yogurt and fruit. Clearly, Mark disagreed.

So it was back to the cereal aisle. Finding a healthy cereal these days that we both can enjoy is no easy task. And sometimes the health claims themselves can be confusing. Recently I grabbed a popular brand with the words “Whole Grain” boldly splashed across the box. But the nutrition label listed only one pitiful gram of fiber per serving. How could a cereal touting whole grain have so little dietary fiber? Whole grains, it turns out, can vary tremendously in their fiber content.

The 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults consume around six ounces of grains daily, and that we make half those grains whole. That means about three ounces of whole grains a day. Depending on the grains we choose, that could be between 1 1/2 and 3 cups.

A whole-grain kernel starts with three parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. When these kernels are heavily processed or refined, they no longer remain whole. Most of the bran and some of the germ is removed, resulting in the loss of fiber as well as a multitude of vitamins, minerals and other health-promoting phytonutrients. Although manufacturers “enrich” refined grains by adding back iron and three B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin and niacin), this does not add back all of the whole-grain benefits.

We have good reason to be on the prowl for those benefits. People who eat plenty of whole grains tend to be leaner and have a lower risk of heart disease than those who don’t. This is probably because whole grains contain antioxidants, phytoestrogens and phytosterols that are protective against coronary disease. The fiber in whole grains also has its benefits, and most of us fail to get the amount of fiber recommended for a healthy diet: 38 grams per day for men, 25 for women. Fiber promotes regularity and lowers the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease. But the whole-grain/fiber connection isn’t perfect. While most whole grains are high in fiber, some, like the whole-grain corn in the cereal that baffled me, are not. For maximum health, a cereal with both whole grain and high fiber makes the best sense.

How do you know when you’ve found the right cereal?
First, check the ingredients to make sure that the word “whole” describes the grains that come first in the list. Then move up to the nutrition facts label and look for at least five grams of fiber per serving. Next come calories. One popular granola, although a decent source of whole grains and fiber, has an exorbitant 528 calories per cup, most from added fats and sugars. I opt for cereals with around 200 or less calories per serving and a sugar content less than 12 grams. As for taste, you’ll have to try them.

My husband recently rebelled and went shopping on his own. Darn proud of himself, he came home with a cereal with eight grams of fiber per serving whose first ingredient was wheat bran and declared that it tasted a lot better than mine. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that although wheat bran is a good source of fiber, it’s not a whole grain, and with 18 grams of sugar per serving, he still has a ways to go. But at least he’s given up the chocolate-frosted sugar bombs.
-Rachel Johnson is senior nutrition advisor to EatingWell and dean of the University of Vermont College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.

Illustration by Richard A. Goldberg