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Published: June 8, 2024

How to Avoid The “Whole Grain” Junk Food Scam

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As awareness about healthy eating grows and people demand more nutritious and nourishing options, a new marketing scam has become increasingly widespread. We’ve all heard the hype about the health benefits of whole grains, but many of the items being marketed as “whole grain” – and therefore thought of as being “healthy” – are a hoax.

Dr. Mark Hyman, an expert in preventive medicine and IIN visiting teacher, said it best in a recent Huffington Post article: “The biggest scam perpetrated on the unsuspecting public is the inclusion of ‘whole grains’ in many processed foods full of sugar … giving the food a virtuous glow.”

What’s Real and What’s a Rip-Off?

When it comes to whole grains, what’s real and what’s a rip-off?

There’s no healthier way to enjoy a grain than in its whole form. Not only is the germ of a grain a great source of nutrients, but the bran also contains the seed’s fiber; this essential component slows the digestive process and prevents blood sugar spikes while your body breaks down the starch of the endosperm. The health benefits of eating whole grains range from preventing type 2 diabetes to lowering cholesterol to reducing the risk of stroke.

Unfortunately, many items claiming to contain these healthful properties are highly processed and stripped of the grain’s original nutrients. This scam stems from a deceptive marketing campaign that can be traced to January 2005—a time when new dietary guidelines urged Americans to “make at least half of your grains whole.”

The sale of whole-grain items skyrocketed, and food manufacturers – especially those producing items not typically considered healthy – suddenly found new and profitable opportunities to include whole grains in their ingredients lists and smack “healthy” labels on their products.

The Truth Behind the “Whole Grain” Fraud

The deception behind these fraudulent whole grain items is two-fold. First, there are the items that may indeed be made with whole grains but are so laden with other unhealthy, unnatural ingredients that they could not possibly be considered healthy.

Kellogg’s Froot Loops is the most obvious example of this kind of scam. The cereal contains 12 grams of sugar per serving – that’s 41% of the product when measured by weight, and is more sugar than in many popular brands of cookies – yet its label proclaims that it is a “good source of fiber & made with whole grain.”

Then, there are the items that simply do not contain enough whole grain to warrant the label at all. In a piece that tackles the marketing of junk food to children, New York Times columnist Mark Bittman highlights the scam that is “whole grain” Poptarts. Despite its branding, the highly-processed, sugary sweet breakfast food contains only 10% whole wheat flour.

How to Avoid the Whole Grain Scam

Bittman suggests that the only way to prevent such marketing fraud is to regulate these food producers similarly to another unhealthy industry: “the tobacco settlements, though imperfect, give us a model for fighting against the marketing of junk, most of which… does not deserve to be called ‘food.’”

As Dr. Hyman suggests, the other solution lies in sticking to whole, unprocessed foods: “The best ways to avoid foods that are bad for you is to stay away from foods with health claims on the labels. They are usually hiding something bad.”


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