A loaf of sliced bread

More than three-quarters of Americans know that whole grains are better for their health than refined ones, and 62 percent say they purposely opt for whole grain versions of certain foods. But up to half of Americans can’t identify when a product is all or mostly whole grain. That’s according to a new study from researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston and New York University.

The researchers had more than 1,000 people compare pairs of hypothetical grain products—bread, crackers, and cereal—side by side and asked them to pick the healthier option. For each pairing, they were shown the front of the package, the ingredients list, and the Nutrition Facts panel.

In all cases, the products that contained fewer whole grains and more refined ones were labeled with claims often seen on them, such as “made with whole grains” and “multigrain.” The healthier options had no claims, but the ingredients list and Nutrition Facts panel showed they had more whole grains and/or more fiber.

More on Food Labels

About a third of the participants chose the less healthy cereal and crackers. More of the participants had trouble picking the healthier bread, however, with 47 percent choosing the mostly refined grain product.

In another experiment, the researchers showed the participants images of labels of products on the market—a honey wheat bread, a 12-grain bread, a multigrain cracker, and an apple-cinnamon oat cereal—and asked them to guess the amount of whole-grain content. About half of them incorrectly identified the breads and crackers as having at least half whole grain, and 61 percent either overestimated or underestimated the amount of whole grains in the cereal. 

“A diet rich in whole grains has many health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. At least half of the grains you eat each day should be whole grains,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a CR nutritionist. “The results of this study show that claims on some grain products can mislead consumers and leave them thinking they’re making healthy choices when they aren’t.”

Here’s a rundown of claims you often see on bread labels and what they really mean.

100% Whole Grains: This indicates that a bread's flour is made from the entire grain kernel—the bran, endosperm, and germ. Refined grains, such as white flour, contain only the endosperm. The bran and germ are where most of the healthy stuff—antioxidants, B vitamins, fiber, and other nutrients—is found.

Whole Grain and Whole Wheat: Whole-wheat bread is made with whole-wheat flour. Whole-grain bread can also include other types of grains, such as oats, brown rice, and barley. As long as the bread is 100 percent whole grain, the two types are equally nutritious.

100% Whole Grain Stamp: This means that all of the bread's grain ingredients are whole grain, and it has at least 16 grams of whole grains per serving. A 50%+ stamp means at least half are whole grains, and a stamp without a percentage means less than half are whole grains, but the product contains at least 8 grams.

Made With Whole Grain(s): This phrase can be confusing—especially when “made with” appears in small print—because the bread may still contain mostly refined grains, which aren't as nutritious as whole grains.

Multigrain: This indicates a bread with more than one type of grain, but you won’t know how many—or whether they're refined or whole—based on those words alone.

21 Whole Grains and Seeds: How many types of whole grains a bread has matters less than where they appear in the ingredients list. Look for whole grains toward the top, which means they're a main ingredient. If they're buried far down on the label, they may just be sprinkled in or added as a topping.

USDA Organic: Breads with this seal are made with at least 95 percent organic ingredients, and the grains used weren't grown with harmful synthetic pesticides.

Good Source of Fiber. By Food and Drug Administration standards, a product with this claim contains 2.8 to 5.3 grams of fiber per serving. But if you want to know the exact amount, check the fiber grams on the nutrition panel.

Double Fiber. This typically means a loaf's fiber is double the amount found in that same brand's "regular" brown loaf. To get there, some brands use added fibers like cellulose fiber, but our experts say fiber from whole grains is better.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the July 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine. It has been updated to include new information.