The benefits of whole-grain foods depend on the rest of the ingredients.
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The benefits of whole-grain foods depend on the rest of the ingredients.

You've likely heard that whole grains are better for you than refined ones, in which the parts of the grain that carry most of the fiber, B vitamins, and healthy fats have been taken out. Diets high in whole grains such as wheat, wild rice, oats, barley, corn, and quinoa have been linked to lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and even certain cancers.

However, just because a food is made with whole grains doesn't mean it's good for you. In January, a Harvard University study claimed that many whole grain-containing foods that carry the Whole Grains Council's seal of approval (the Whole Grain Stamp) have just as much or more sugar and fat as similar products made with refined grains. Not good. But not exactly shocking, either, when you consider the kinds of foods the researchers evaluated: chips, crackers, cereals, breads, and bars. After all, Cocoa Puffs, Trix, Eggo waffles, Tostitos Scoops, and Keebler Scooby-Doo Cinnamon Grahams all bear the Whole Grains Council stamp – hardly what we think of as pinnacles of health.

But here's the thing: The Whole Grains Council never intended its seal to represent a product's overall nutrition. Rather, it serves as an easily recognizable call-out for foods that offer at least 8 grams of whole grains. "The government recommends three servings of whole grains per day, and the stamp says you're getting at least half a serving," says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies at the Whole Grains Council. "But as for overall nutrition, a whole-grain cookie is still a cookie."

The point is, to pick the most healthful whole-grain breads, pastas, cereals, and snacks, you have to look beyond the front label. Check the ingredients list for sugar, sodium, and fat content, all of which can quickly turn a whole-grain item into junk. "Sugar is the biggest thing to watch out for," Harriman says. "People often don't realize that 4 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. If you wouldn't put three teaspoons of sugar on your cereal, then don't buy one that has 12 grams. For me, 1.5 teaspoons is more than enough." She says breads tend to be sacked with salt, so it's best to compare different brands of similar whole-grain breads and pick whichever has less sodium.

There are also tons of products out there that offer sufficient whole grains, but don't carry the Whole Grain Council seal, so finding those takes more ingredients-panel scanning. Here are a few tips: "For barley, look for whole-grain or hulled – not pearled," Harriman says. "With corn, look for whole-grain or whole. If you see the word de-germed, it's not whole-grain corn." Also, avoid plain wheat flour and enriched wheat flour. "The term enriched sounds great, but it means they've taken out several dozen nutrients and put only a few back in, and not in the original proportions," she explains.

Harriman points out that certain grains, including oats and brown rice, are always whole, even if it doesn't say so on ingredients lists. "There's no such thing as refined oats, so all oats in our food supply are whole grain," she says. Because of this, manufacturers often don't bother to put whole-grain oats on a label. The same is usually true with amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, and teff, she adds.