Shedding Light on a Grainy Subject

Think about the last time you bought bread at the grocery store. Rows and rows of bread wrapped in shiny plastic packages with plentiful promises of health as empty as their calories. Phrases such as “heart healthy,” “100 percent whole grain” and “low sodium” are stamped on many packages, while others make no nutritional claims at all. The labels can be confusing and inconsistent.

Additionally, if you live in an economically thriving neighborhood, maybe the last time you bought bread there were many choices at your neighborhood grocery store. But, if you live in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood, maybe you had limited choices.

Dr. Valerie O’Brien discusses a research project with her Honors Nutrition Class that centers on sliced bread.

The Honors Nutrition class at Tulsa Community College conducted research in the fall semester to examine the nutritional quality of breads available in different quadrants within Tulsa County.

“Food is not really equally available to all the members of our community here in Tulsa,” said Dr. Valerie O’Brien, Professor of Biology. “There are a number of food deserts. For this research, the class used income and poverty demographics to see if there is a difference in breads that are available, how they are displayed and their prices.”

They also compared packages of breads labeled as “whole grain” with their actual nutritional content to determine whether consumers could rely on that wording when trying to choose healthy whole grain breads.

“We’ve already learned that labeling can be incorrect and there is an inconsistency,” said Cheryl McGuire-Howard, Psychology major. “Bread packages might have a whole grain stamp but some of the best sources for whole grain bread didn’t have the stamp. So just because it has a stamp doesn’t mean it’s the best and just because it doesn’t have a stamp doesn’t mean that it’s not the best. It’s inconsistent for the people who don’t know.”

O’Brien said she got the idea for the research project from an article in a peer-reviewed nutrition journal. She told the students about it, and they were eager do research as undergrads.

“I like that we are doing a different approach, instead of just listening to a lecture and taking a test,” said Elizabeth Donegan, English Education major. “We are taking articles from ‘Food,’ which is a special issue of Scientific American, and using our textbook to study issues more in depth.

“It has helped me connect and get excited about nutrition and science, which I’m not normally excited about either of those things. But, I love this class.”

O’Brien said it is important for college students to think critically and work with open-ended situations. She said she benefitted from doing research as an undergraduate student, so she wants her students to have the same opportunity.

This spring, her Honors Nutrition class is expanding and building upon the research from her fall class. The ultimate goal is to have reports that they can submit to the Tulsa Health Department that gives insight on the availability of healthy whole grains.

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Results of the study: O’Brien said that her class found many healthy whole grain breads were available at both small, independently owned grocery stores and large chain grocery stores. They found that regardless of the demographics of an area, grocery stores had healthy whole grain bread choices for consumers.

Even though they found that white bread was priced below whole grain bread, she said they found that the whole grain breads were relatively inexpensive in comparison.

They also found that when a package of bread had the word “whole” prominently placed, 85 percent of those breads had a healthy whole grain ratio. That is, those breads had a healthy ratio of carbohydrates to fiber, which is approximately 10:1. This translates into the consumer having to spend less time and energy trying to do the math in the bread aisle.

O’Brien said she plans to expand the research this spring by studying other grain products, such as cereals and crackers.