Eat More Whole Grains: Deciphering The Food Labels

Froot Loops

With a clear and present understanding of the benefits of eating whole grains, why is it so difficult to find healthy whole grain foods on our supermarket shelves? Wander the aisles, and you’ll find dozens of products with labels indicating they’re “made with whole grains” — including sugary cereals like Froot Loops. If you or your kids think that makes Froot Loops a healthy breakfast choice, you’ve just been “leanwashed” — a term coined by the Leanwashing Index to help us identify exaggerated or misleading health claims made by companies through advertising, marketing, or packaging.

All it takes is a minute trace of a whole grain in a product for food companies to be allowed to label it “whole grain.” The phrase “made with” is equally useless, again requiring only a dash of an ingredient. Products with those labels aren’t necessarily good for you.

Three Ways To Identify Healthy Whole Grain Foods

To help you distinguish healthy whole grain products from those no-so-healthy choices, leverage these three tips:

  1. Whole Grain StampLook for the Whole Grain Stamp. Created by the Whole Grains Council, the Whole Grain Stamp indicates a product has at least half a serving of whole grains per labeled serving. The 100% Whole Grain Stamp goes a step further, assuring you that a labeled serving of its product contains a full serving or more of whole grain and that ALL the grain it contains is whole.
  2. Look for the right words high on the product’s list of ingredients. If you see any of the following ingredients, you know you’re getting the whole grain: whole grain [name of grain], whole wheat, whole [grain], stoneground whole [grain], brown rice, oats, oatmeal (including old-fashioned oatmeal, instant oatmeal), and wheatberries. The USDA’s MyPlate guidelines recommend looking for a whole grain first in the ingredients list and no added sugars in any of the first three ingredients.
  3. Do some basic math using the “10:1 ratio.” 10 to 1 is the approximate ratio of carbohydrate to fiber in whole wheat flour. Dividing carbs by 10 and comparing the result to a product’s fiber content indicates the balance of sugary carbs to fiber. Using Nature Valley Oats ‘n Honey Granola Bars as an example, dividing its 29 grams of carbs by 10 gives you 2.9, but each serving contains only 2 grams of fiber. Not likely the healthiest choice (especially when homemade granola bars are spectacularly tasty and easy to make!).

Here’s The Rub

Each of these three tips alone is helpful, but not totally reliable.

Let’s look again at Froot Loops and its label indicating it’s a “good source of fiber” and “made with whole grains.” Divide its 26 grams of carbs by 10, and you get 2.6. Each serving of Froot Loops actually contains 3 grams of fiber. But with sugar listed as the first ingredient and some scary chemically-sounding words in the ingredient list, common sense tells us to steer clear.

To learn more about whole grains, check out the Whole Grains Council web site which is rich with information on whole grain benefits, labeling, and recipes.

We’d also love to hear from you. How do you decipher food labels to make the healthiest choices? Please share your tips with our readers in the Comments section below.

Image Credit: Zanastardust via Flickr/CC

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1 thought on “Eat More Whole Grains: Deciphering The Food Labels”

  1. Another label item to watch is the type of fiber the food contains: soluble (lowering cholesterol and glucose) or insoluble (aiding in digestion).

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