Fiber-rich whole grains are arguably the best thing ever to happen to carb lovers. Unlike the refined stuff, these better-for-your grains don’t negatively affect blood sugar or weight, which allows us to eat pasta, bread, and cereal guilt-free. The best part? They have a similar taste and texture to they're refined siblings, and they're accessible and affordable.
If that seems too good to be true, that's because it is—sort of.
Between 2000 and 2011, the number of whole-grain grocery products increased by 1,960 percent, according to the Oldways Whole Grains Council. When food manufacturers realized that slapping the claim “made with whole grains” on their boxes and wrappers meant that they could move more product at a higher price, they all jumped at the opportunity. Unfortunately for us, though, many of these products are stealthy health-food frauds. While some only contain a small amount of actual whole grains mixed with unhealthy refined flour, others are nothing more than additive-filled junk foods masquerading as healthy fare, says Alissa Rumsey MS, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Something can be made with whole grains and still be a highly processed food with a long ingredient list. Replacing white flour with some whole-wheat flour may add a little fiber, but it doesn't make it into a health food.”
Food producers can get away with this shady business because there are no requirements for them to disclose what percentage of their products are actual whole grains. Although the Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to address misleading whole-grain claims, action has yet to be taken. That means it's up to nutrition researchers like us to help you and your family identify whole-grain foods that are no good, so you can steer clear. Here’s how you can get started:
Step 1: Look For Whole Grains
To spot whole-grain fraud, you’ll need to look at the ingredient list. If the first ingredient listed is “whole grains,” that’s a promising sign. Things like amaranth, bulgur, barley, corn, farro, millet, quinoa, oats, rye, and spelt are also whole grains. (If they’re listed first, that’s also a good sign.)
Step 2: Search for Unhealthy Stuff
If you see sugar, artificial dyes, additives, or enriched wheat (a type of refined wheat) listed on the nutritional panel, then the product is likely better left on the shelf.
Step 3: Take Out a Pen
Because you may not always have time to read every food label, we identified some of the very worst whole grain products in the supermarket. Take out a pen and paper and write these bad boys down. You’ll want to keep this list handy when you head to the store. And if you’re looking for ways to ensure your groceries are the healthy kind, don’t miss our special report 50 Best Supermarket Shopping Tips Ever.
Quaker Weight Control Maple & Brown Sugar
1 packet, 160 calories, 3 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 290 mg sodium, 29 g carbs, 6 g fiber, 1 g sugar, 7 g protein
Subbing out your bowl of high-sugar breakfast cereal for a packet of oatmeal—a wholesome whole grain—is one of the easiest ways to lose weight and improve your diet. But if you swap in the wrong oatmeal packet, you could be doing your body more harm than good. This packet, for example, is full of additives that may only defeat your body goals. Two of these villains are thd artificial sweeteners acesulfame potassium and sucralose, which have been shown in animal tests to increase calorie consumption. To find a better oatmeal option, dig into our report: All 25 Quaker Instant Oatmeal Packets—Ranked. Or better yet, make oatmeal the slow, old-fashioned way: on the stove.
Sara Lee Soft & Smooth White Made with Whole Grain Bread
2 slices, 130 calories, 1.5 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 250 mg sodium, 26 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 5 g protein
Enriched wheat flour is this bread’s primary ingredient. Because enriched wheat contains more nutrients than refined wheat, it’s not the worst thing in the world. However, nothing compares to the health benefits of true whole grains. You find a bit of that in this bread, too, right along with sugar and soybean oil, two additives that have been connected to weight gain when consumed in excess. The bottom line: there are better loaves of bread to be bought. Get the scoop on the best and worst options in our report 20 Best and Worst Breads from the Store.
Zatarain’s Brown Rice Jambalaya Mix
1 cup prepared, 140 calories, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat,470 mg sodium, 29 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 3 g protein
We’ve got good new and bad news. First the good: When you buy brown rice, you can be certain every single time that you’re actually taking home a whole grain, according to Oldways Whole Grain Council. But when you start talking about rice mixes it’s an entirely new playing field—that’s the bad news. To give their rice its signature Cajun flavor, Zatarain adds dehydrated vegetables and seasonings like paprika to their mix. The problem is that they also add healthy-body booby traps like hydrolyzed soy protein, corn syrup solids, MSG (one of these 23 Worst Food Additives in America), and caramel color, a potentially carcinogenic food coloring. To stay on a path toward better health, stick with plain brown rice, and amp up the flavor yourself at home using fresh, wholesome ingredients.
Whole Wheat Ritz Crackers
5 crackers, 70 calories, 2.5 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 120 mg sodium, 10 g carbs, < g fiber, 2 g sugar, 1 g protein
Despite what the package claims, the whole-wheat version of these crackers isn’t much healthier than the conventional variety. Not only are they made primarily with enriched flour—refined flour that’s had some nutrients added back in—these snacks contain added sugar and HFCS, along with hydrogenated cottonseed oil, a heart-harming trans-fat Rumsey says should be avoided. “The label may say zero grams of trans fat, but technically they can label it as zero as long as it’s less than 0.5 grams. While this may not seem like a lot, if you eat a few servings or a few foods with some trans fat, it can add up.” When selecting a healthy cracker, Rumsey says to turn the box over and look at the ingredient list. “Don't just rely on the front-of-package claims.” Our report, The Best & Worst Popular Supermarket Crackers can help you pick a healthier alternative.
Kellogg's Froot Loops Whole Grain Cereal
1 cup, 110 calories, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 150 mg sodium, 25 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 10 g sugar, 1 g protein
The toucan on this box is smiling because he knows he’s about to fool you into buying an undercover junk food. Even though the front of this box says it’s “made with whole grain” it fails to mention that the main ingredient used to make their colorful loops is pure sugar. A quick scan of the ingredient label is all it takes to see that there are more bad than good in this box. No one should be eating Red #40 or hydrogenated oils for breakfast—especially kids! To identify a whole-grain cereal that’s actually wholesome, Rumsey suggests scanning the nutrition and ingredient labels: “Cereal should have a short ingredient list—and one that’s free of artificial colors and flavors. It’s best to stay away from anything with more than 8 grams of sugar per serving.” By those parameters, Froot Loops are a definite pass.
Thomas' Plain Bagels Made with Whole Grains
1 bagel, 260 calories, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 420 mg sodium, 53 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 7 g sugar, 9 g protein
According to Manuel Villacorta, RD, author of Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches, to be nutritionally worthwhile, a bagel must be paired with something else: A two- to three-hour run. And that’s because nearly all of them have more carbs and calories than an entire bowl of white-flour pasta—and this variety is no exception. These bagels may contain some token whole grains, but all the empty carbs and added sugars make it more dietary foe than friend. To pick a better bagel, Rumsey says to look for a package that has "100% whole wheat flour" as the first ingredient, and to choose brands with shorter ingredient lists. She also suggests only eating half a bagel at a time to help keep the portion size in check. Have trouble eating a reasonable amount? These 18 Easy Ways to Control Your Portion Sizes can help.
Pepperidge Farms Farmhouse Oatmeal Bread
2 slices, 240 calories, 4 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 400 mg sodium, 44 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 8 g protein
The word oatmeal may lead you to believe that this bread may be a heartier, more filling choice, but we’re sorry to say it's not. With only two grams per serving, this loaf does not qualify as a good fiber source and doesn't really offer your body much more than a classic slice of white bread. Its only redeeming quality is the eight grams of protein hiding within—but even so, you're better off sticking with true whole-grain options to reap the most health benefits.
Minute Ready-to-Serve Whole Grain Brown Rice
1 container, about 1 cup, 230 calories, 4 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 160mg sodium, 44 g carbs, 4 g fiber, 0 g sugar, 5 g protein
Foods that can be made in just minutes are rarely healthy picks. But sometimes there are exceptions to that rule. Rumsey explains that products like Minute Ready are precooked and dehydrated so they cook up in less time—without losing any of their nutritional value. However, she warns that some products do add oils and salt and says these offerings should be skipped. Minute Ready adds soybean oil to their mix, so it’s better left on the shelf. Birds Eye Steamfresh Whole Grain Brown Rice (which you can find in the freezer section) is a better option and one that only takes five minutes to cook in the microwave.
Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Whole Grain Cheddar
55 pieces, 140 calories, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 250 mg sodium, 19 g carbs, 2 g fiber, < 1 g sugar, 3 g protein
Pepperidge Farms gets brownie points for using more whole-wheat flour than enriched, but that doesn’t change the fact that this snack serves up little in terms of nutrition. There are better things to munch on between meals—like these 50 Snacks With 50 Calories or Less.
Quaker Chewy S'mores Granola Bars
1 bar, 100 calories, 2 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 75 mg sodium, 19 g carbs, < 1 g fiber, 8 g sugar, 1 g protein
These campfire-inspired snack bars are “made with 100% whole grains,” but that doesn’t mean they’re good for you. Caramel color, graham-cookie pieces, marshmallows, Blue #1, and sorbitol are just a few of the questionable ingredients lurking inside the treat’s colorful wrapper. If those didn’t send you a clear message, the measly 1 gram of fiber should have been a dead giveaway this so-called “family favorite” is a total dud!
Jolly Time Mini Bags Blast O Butter, Ultimate Theater Style
4.5 cups popped, 1 serving per bag: 210 calories, 16 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 6 g trans fats, 410 mg sodium, 19 g carbs, 4 g fiber, < 1 g sugar, 3 g protein
Popcorn is more than a delicious movie snack, it’s actually a fibrous whole grain, too! But Jolly Time found a way to ruin it. They smothered their kernels in three days' worth of soon-to-be-banned trans fats (from partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil). If you polish off the entire bag a greasy hand will be the least of your troubles.
Campbell’s Healthy Request Savory Chicken With Brown Rice Soup
1 cup, 110 calories, 2.5 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 410 mg sodium, 16 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 4 g sugar, 5 g protein
Even though it’s filled with wholesome brown rice, this soup is seriously lacking in fiber. If you decided to dig into this can, be sure to pair it with something else that's rich in the nutrient—or your stomach may be left rumbling.
Pop-Tarts, Low Fat Frosted Strawberry with Whole Grain and Fiber
1 pastry, 180 calories, 2.5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 180 mg sodium, 38 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 15 g sugar, 2 g protein
It has whole grains! It has fiber! But guess what?! It’s still a sugary breakfast pastry. Considering most people don’t have just one Pop-Tart, this is a definite Not That! Why not try some of these delicious 17 Genious Breakfast Ideas Diet Experts Love instead?
Krusteaz Oat Bran Supreme Muffin Mix
1 muffin, 180 calories, 4.5 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 300 mg sodium, 32 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 14 g sugar, 3 g protein
Even if they’re filled with oats and other whole grains, when eaten on the reg, a muffin will likely leave you with a muffin top. (Hey, they had to get their name from somewhere, right?) This muffin is basically void of any satiating fiber and filled with palm and soybean oil, which have both been connected to health ills like weight gain, diminished brain functioning, and even cancer. To learn more about the dangers of these shady oils, check out our report 5 Reasons Vegetable Oil is Worse Than Sugar.
Kellogg’s Eggo Nutri-Grain Whole Wheat Waffles
2 waffles, 170 calories, 6 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 380 mg sodium, 27 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 4 g protein
Not only are there better fiber-rich waffles to be had, these ones are spiked with sodium aluminum phosphate to help with the leavening process. The aluminum found in it is a metal that researchers have linked to Alzheimer’s disease incidence, according to a study in Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, so it’s best to leave these Eggos in the freezer section.