What's the Difference Between Multigrain and Whole Grain?

The Back of the Box

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Over the past few months as I've traveled to talk about my cookbook and teach cooking classes, I've paid close attention to the questions I get most frequently. Many students have mentioned how confusing they find shopping for whole grain products. Food labels don't necessarily mention what percentage of a bread or prepared food is whole grain, and many use the blanket term "multigrain."

It can be tough to discern whether "multigrain" or "whole grain" is healthier — or how they even differ. Here are some tips from a nutritionist and dietician.

Personally, I think shopping for food these days is confusing and complicated enough. While we don't buy a ton of packaged food, we buy enough that a good sussing out of food labels takes a bit of time and energy. Many companies are getting extremely savvy with nutrition claims on their boxes and bags, making it even harder to discern what's actually in the product or if it's nutritionally beneficial in the first place.

The Difference Between Multigrain & Whole Grain

So let's get down to definitions:

  • Multigrain simply means that more than one grain was used in making the product at hand. So if you're holding a cracker box that claims it's "multigrain," perhaps there is some whole wheat flour and a little barley flour.
  • Whole grain, on the other hand, means that the entire grain (the bran, germ and endosperm) is used in the product — although how much takes a bit of investigation.

Which Is Healthier?

Seattle-based registered dietitian Carrie Dennett speaks to the confusion of figuring out how much whole grain nutrition is actually in a product: "Multigrain and whole grain sound similar but may be very different," she told me. "All multigrain means is that the product contains more than one type of grain—they may be refined and stripped of their natural nutrients and fiber."

She recommends prioritizing whole grains. "If you like the idea of multigrain breads and other products, make sure that those grains are also whole grains. Read the ingredient list and look for the word whole before each type of grain or flour listed."

Nutritionist Jennifer Adler also affirmed the need to read the labels: "In order to make sure you are actually getting a whole grain product, with so much tricky labeling, look for claims like 100% whole wheat or 100% whole grain. The first ingredient on the ingredient list should be a whole grain."

"Sometimes," she warned, "it will say 'whole grain' on the label and it is the last ingredient in a tiny amount which, in my opinion, is deceptive and misleading".

Tips for Reading the Ingredient List

So the quick trick? Looking beyond the flashy claims on the front of boxes and bags. If you're working to incorporate more grains into your diet, turn right to the ingredient list to see if the grains used are "whole grains" and if they are very close to the top of the list (indicating a large percentage are used).

Many products are also now indicating how many grams of whole grains are in their products and hopefully, in the future, the labeling will become even more transparent. Until then, a little more time and effort at the grocery store will pay off.

(Image credits: Aimée Herring/John Wiley & Sons)

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