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Whole grain food labeling is confusing to many consumers, study finds

Researchers say that labeling needs to be clearer so consumers can make healthier choices

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Understanding food labels can be tricky business for many consumers. Recent studies have found just how frequently labels are misunderstood, and researchers say the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should make things clearer for shoppers. 

Now, a new study conducted by researchers from Tufts University is backing up those assertions. The researchers say whole grain food packaging is particularly hard to understand for many consumers, so they’re calling for changes in how food is labeled with the hope that clearer wording will prompt consumers to make healthier choices. 

“Our study results show that many consumers cannot correctly identify the amount of whole grains or select a healthier whole grain product,” said researcher Parke Wilde. “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.” 

Confusion over whole grains

For the purposes of the study, the researchers showed whole grain food packages to over 1,000 U.S. adults. Some of the examples were actual labels while others were hypothetical renderings used to represent what many labels actually look like. In both instances, the exact amount of whole grain was hard to discern, and many products contained misleading or confusing words that led consumers to believe that products were healthier than they really are.  

The goal of the study was to assess consumers’ knowledge of healthy food products. Based on the results, the researchers wanted to see if there was a need for food labeling to change. 

Overall, when looking at both real and fake images of whole grain food packages, the researchers learned that most consumers overestimated how much whole grain is found in popular food items. In this study, they overestimated whole grain content over 50 percent of the time, regardless of whether it was a real or fake image. Though the participants were shown a wide range of whole grain foods, determining the correct whole grain content in bread was the trickiest out of all the foods. 

The importance of clear labeling

Eating diets high in whole grains can have countless health benefits for consumers, so it’s important that the labeling on these types of foods is straightforward and accurate. The researchers say that knowing exactly what’s in a food product can aid consumers in making the best choices for their desired diets and can lead to improved health overall. 

“With the results of this study, we have a strong legal argument that whole grain labels are misleading in fact,” said researcher Jennifer L. Pomeranz. “I would say that when it comes to deceptive labels, ‘whole grain’ claims are among the worst. Even people with advanced degrees cannot figure out how much whole grain is in these products.” 

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