Appearing in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the new study aimed to examine people's perceptions, understanding, beliefs, and knowledge about whole grain foods.
And although the majority of the 274 participants were aware of 'whole grains', they less often reported using the term. Foods most commonly named as examples of whole grains were bread and cereals, while the main characteristic of these products was considered to be a lack of processing.
The survey focused on three main groups of American adults: food and nutrition professionals, health club members, and individuals representing various segments of the general population, including participants in the government's nutrition program for women, infants and children (WIC).
Participants were asked a number of questions to determine their level of familiarity with these types of foods, including what makes a food whole grain, what are the recommended number of whole grain servings per day, what are the benefits of these foods, and how are they identified.
In general, food and nutrition professionals had a clear and accurate understanding of whole grains, and were more specific and extensive in their responses. In contrast, health club members and WIC participants gave less distinct responses.
All nutrition professionals, 98 percent of health club members and 86 percent of WIC participants were aware of the term whole grains, while only 52 percent, 20 percent and 19 percent respectively reported using the term.
Bread was the dominant whole grain food named by all groups, with some specification of whole wheat, whole grain and wheat breads. Cereal was also commonly identified, including some stipulation of oatmeal and whole grain cereal. Other foods sometimes named included rice (especially brown rice), barley and pasta.
The main perception as to why foods are whole grain was that they involved little or no processing. Responses about food structure focusing on bran, whole kernel, germ, and other components were also mentioned.
When it came to health benefits, the main association was with fiber consumption, especially amongst nutrition professionals and health club members. Food professionals also mentioned the prevention of specific diseases, although this was not a connection frequently cited by participants in the other groups.
Perceptions of recommended daily servings of whole grains ranged from 5-12, and were relatively consistent throughout the three groups.
Reading labels was reported as the best way to identify whole grain products, as well as scrutinizing the food item for whole grain content.
"This could be an effective strategy if consumers have sufficient knowledge about what to look for on the label. However, even individuals with relatively extensive experience with whole grains are often confused about how to use food labels to identify whole grain products," said the report.
To a lesser extent, consumers said they used appearance and color as ways to identify whole grains, but this is not an accurate indication, noted the report, because of the coloring agents that are sometimes added to products.
The word 'wheat' was also mentioned by participants in the study, and this term was often misconstrued by consumers to mean wholegrain, according to the researchers.
In general, the fact that a large number of consumers had a similar but less elaborate understanding of whole grains as nutrition professionals provides an initial platform for promoting whole grain education, said the report.
"It is a straightforward task to use nutrition education and counseling to enhance a shallow understanding of food terms such as 'whole grains'," wrote the researchers from the University of Minnesota's Department of Food Science and Nutrition.
They concluded that additional studies are needed to determine what people think about whole grains, and when, where, and with whom they are eaten.