FDA: Scale Back 'Whole Grain' Labels

Administration Cites Lack of Definition of 'Good' Source of Whole Grains

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 15, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 15, 2006 -- Food manufacturers should stop using labels branding products as "good" or "excellent" sources of whole grain, the FDA said Wednesday.

Numerous products, including breads and cereals, now carry labels claiming to be a good source of whole grain. But a guidance issued by the agency now says the claim could be misleading because scientists have not defined what amount of whole grain is "good" or "excellent" for health.

"They should not be making statements that imply a level, such as 'high' or 'an excellent source,'" says Barbara Schneeman, PhD, director of FDA's Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements. The FDA does not think that that terminology is appropriate to use on these products, she notes.

"Food Pyramid" dietary guidelines released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year call for consumers to boost their intake of whole grains, which are thought to be a good source of dietary fiber and other nutrients. The guidelines recommend half of all grain in the diet consist of whole grain.

The guidelines helped spur General Mills to announce last year that it would manufacture all of its cereals using only whole grain.

Whole grain contains all three major components of a grain kernel: bran, germ, and endosperm. Examples include:

  • Whole-wheat flour
  • Bulgur (cracked wheat)
  • Oatmeal
  • Whole cornmeal
  • Brown rice

According to the USDA, refined grains have been milled, a process that removes the bran and germ. This is done to give grains a finer texture and improve their shelf life, but it also removes dietary fiber, iron, and many B vitamins.

Industry groups, regulators, and researchers often differ on how they define whole grain.

FDA's guidance does not yet have the force of law. Schneeman says that the agency is trying to give consumers a "more consistent" definition of what "whole grain" means when they see it on food labels. The agency opened a 60-day comment period allowing industry and the public to give input on the guidance.

But the document does give a sense of how FDA will view food label claims in the future.

'Good' or 'Excellent' Claims

Many foods now carry stamp-type labels proclaiming the product to be a "good" or "excellent" source of whole grain. The stamps come from the Whole Grain Council, an industry group including 110 food companies.

Schneeman says that such labels would be evaluated "on a case-by-case" basis to see if they violate the agency's existing rules against "false and misleading" claims. The guidance is a "first step" toward an FDA attempt to define the health benefits of whole grains, she explains.

Manufacturers can still use labels displaying a quantity of whole grain, such as "5 grams" or "1 oz."

About 600 foods carry labels describing them as "good" or "excellent" sources of whole grain.

Dun Gifford, the group's chairman, says the industry is "pleased" that the FDA is working to simplify the definition of "whole grain" for consumers.

He stress that the FDA did not threaten to outlaw the "good" and "excellent" labels the group uses, suggesting that the agency would not enforce its opinion on the labels any time soon.

"They're going to review these things on an individual product basis. If there are 600 products now and there's going to be 1,200 in a month, that's going to be a long review," Gifford tells WebMD.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Guidance for Industry and FDA Staff, Whole Grain Label Statements, FDA, Feb. 15, 2006. Barbara Schneeman, PhD, director, FDA Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling and Dietary Supplements. Dun Gifford, founder and chairman, Whole Grain Council.

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