BOSTON (August 10, 2020, 9:00 a.m. EDT)—Whole grain labels on cereal, bread, and crackers are confusing to consumers and could cause them to make fewer healthy choices, according to the results of a study that tested whether people are able pick out the healthier, whole grain option based on food package labels.
The study, led by researchers at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and NYU School of Global Public Health, is published today in Public Health Nutrition. The researchers say the findings could help lead to enhancements in food labeling.
A pool of 1,030 U.S. adults, representative of the population, responded to a survey with photos of both hypothetical and real products. The photos showed the products, with various whole grain labels on the front of the package, along with the nutrition facts label and ingredients list for each product. 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, 29-47% of respondents answered incorrectly (specifically, 31% incorrectly for cereal, 29-37% for crackers, 47% for bread).
- For real products that were not mostly composed of whole grains, 43-51% of respondents overstated the whole grain content (specifically, 41% overstated for multigrain crackers, 43% for honey wheat bread, and 51% for 12-grain bread). Consumers more accurately stated the whole grain content for an oat cereal product that really was mostly composed of whole grain.
“Our study results show that many consumers cannot correctly identify the amount of whole grains or select a healthier whole grain product. 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 first author Parke Wilde, a food economist and professor at the Friedman School.