Multi-Grain, Whole Grain, and Organic Grains – What These Food Label Terms Mean

In a previous article series, I discussed a number of tips to help you understand the complexities and misleading information found on food labels. Unfortunately there is a lot more to understand about food label terminology than what I was able to cover in my previous writings, so today I will cover some additional food label terms that are commonly misunderstood. The terms covered in this article are multi-grain, whole grain, and organic and I chose to cover them together, because they are related and all three can even be used on the same product.

Multi-grain and whole grain are obviously terms used with grains (wheat, corn, rye, etc.), so they are often found on packages of high carbohydrate foods, such as breads, cereals, flour, pasta, etc. Organic is a term that can be used with grains, but it is also used many other types of foods, such as vegetables, meat, dairy products, and fruit. However, for this article I am really just focusing on the term organic as it relates specifically to grains.

Organic Grains – When a raw grain is labeled organic, it means it has been grown and transported without the use of artificial pesticides, chemicals, and other additives, however, natural pesticides may still be used on occasion. Both the grain and the land it is grown on must be considered organic for the ingredient to be certified organic. As a side note, when dealing with foods like meat, there are also requirements for additives, such as hormones, which do not apply for grains.

Raw organic grains are more natural and healthier than their non-organic counterparts, but when it comes to foods labeled as organic, there is some room for manufacturers to add in non-organic ingredients. When every ingredient in a product is certified organic (excluding water and salt), the package can contain the words “100 percent organic.” If non-organic ingredients are included, other terminology must be used. As long as long as 95% of the ingredients are organic, then the product can still be labeled as organic, just not 100 percent organic.

However, that still leaves 5% of the product that can be made up of ingredients that are non-organic and potentially unwanted and unhealthy. Products that do not reach the 95% organic ingredients requirement can instead be labeled with the phrase “made with organic ingredients,” if at least 70% of the ingredients are organic. These labeling standards are important, because it means organic products can still have added ingredients you don’t want to consume, so you should always read the label to know what you are getting.

Whole Grains – A food is considered a whole grain when all parts of the grain are included in a product and they are kept in the same proportions as they exist in nature. A grain has 3 different parts: the endosperm, bran, and germ and if any one is missing or the proportions are wrong, then the ingredient cannot be labeled as a whole grain. Refined products typically only contain the endosperm and are usually missing the bran and germ, which are healthy sources fiber and other nutrients.

Many refined ingredients will often be “enriched,” which sounds better than it actually is. Nutrients are are removed from the grain during the refining process, but some nutrients can be added back later, which then makes the product enriched. Unfortunately, enriched products generally have more nutrients removed then they have added during the enriching process, so the net result is an inferior product. Also, the added nutrients may be of poorer quality than the ones that were removed in the first place.

Multi-Grain – This term is fairly self-explanatory, but people often think it means more than it actually does. When a product has multi-grain on the label it simply means that more than one type of grain is included in the ingredients. People often assume the grains are whole grains, but multi-grain only refers to the number of grains and it does not have any bearing on the quality of the grains in the product.

If a product is made with white flour and white rice flour, both of which are refined, it is still a multi-grain product because it has two different types of grains. Whole grain and organic products can also be multi-grain of they have multiple whole grains or organic grains, but much of the time these products do not even have the multi-grain label, because it is not as important as the labels of whole grain or organic.

For instance, the Kashi brand has the tagline “The Seven Whole Grain Company” and they have a trademarked combination of whole grain ingredients including wheat, rice, oats, triticale, barley, rye, and buckwheat. These are all whole grains, so any product with these ingredients is by definition multi-grain, but multi-grain is not printed anywhere on the product, because it is essentially a meaningless term.

Companies often use the term multi-grain on products to make them sound healthier than they are, especially when the product contains poor quality refined grains. If a company has the choice between listing a product as organic, whole grain, or multi-grain, they will almost always make the terms organic and whole grain the priority. Multi-grain is often used when neither of the other terms applies to the product.

To sum things up, grain products that are labeled 100% organic or organic have few if any added or unwanted ingredients or byproducts from things like pesticides. On the other hand, just because a product is organic it does not guarantee the product is healthy, because ingredients like white flour, which is unhealthy, can still be organic if it was processed using organic methods. However, most organic grain based products are rather healthy.

Whole grain products are also usually healthy and they contain all 3 parts of the grain, which means they should have all the nutrients found in the natural product. Products with whole grains can still have unwanted added ingredients, especially in packaged products such as breads and cereals, but the grains themselves are healthier than the refined grains found in other products.

Products with the multi-grain label only claim to have more than one type of grain included in the product and nothing more. For me, the multi-grain label acts as a warning sign and causes me take a closer look at the rest of the label, especially the ingredients list. That way I can see if the product has quality grains or if it simply has multiple inferior ingredients, which is unfortunately often the case.

If you buy a lot of packaged products and want to find the grain products with the highest quality, it is best to look for products that are both organic and made with whole grains. These products are naturally the most expensive, especially when it comes to packaged products, so if you want to save some money, the best combination of health and value can be found when buying whole grain products with minimal unhealthy added ingredients.

On the other hand, if you don’t mind cooking with raw whole grains, you can get some great deals even when they are organic. The bulk organic whole grains sold at many stores, such as brown rice, oats, wheat, etc. are often less expensive than packaged products containing inferior quality grains. The trade off is they do take some extra preparation time, but if you don’t mind cooking, they are often a very healthy and economical way to go.

Rebecca R. Ammons

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