woman reading food labels

Your guide to whole grain label reading

With bright colors, dubious health claims and foreign words, it’s more important than ever to pay attention to what you are buying at the grocery store.

Here is a snapshot into reading the labels on whole grain foods — something I show participants during grocery store tours:

Start with the ingredient list, not the Nutrition Facts label.

This rule goes for any product, but especially when trying to determine the healthiest grain and bread options. The ingredients are listed by weight, so what the product is made up most of is listed first and least of is listed last.

For whole grain breads, whole is the magic word – not wheat. Look for whole wheat flour listed first, taking care to make sure the second or third ingredient is not enriched wheat flour or just wheat flour. If it is, this means the product is about 51 percent whole wheat and 49 percent white flour.

If the word whole is missing, the flour has been processed and much of the fiber, protein, B vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants have been removed.

With pasta, there should be only one ingredient: durum whole wheat flour. Remember: wheat flour does not equal whole wheat flour.

“Low-sodium” food is anything less than 140 mg per serving.

Most grain products are made with sodium. It is a preservative; giving foods a longer shelf life.

Salt (made up of sodium) and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) are needed to make bread. Because of this, it’s difficult to find sodium-free breads, so be mindful of portion size and use 140 mg as a guideline.

One slice of bread is 150 mg, so we get 300 mg of sodium from two slices of bread alone.

Looking for a sodium-free option? Believe it or not, whole wheat pasta has 0 mg of sodium. 

Whole grains do not equal grams of fiber

One of the largest marketing scams are phrases on packaging, such as “8 grams of whole grains!” Is eight a good number or a bad number?

Grams of whole grains are not the same as grams of fiber.

To put it in perspective, three quarters of a cup of whole wheat pasta (which is not very much!) has 56 grams of whole grains and 5 grams of fiber. That 8-gram granola bar would be lucky to have even 1 gram of fiber.

“I’m gluten-free and can’t eat grains.”

False! There are plenty of wonderful options out there.

Quinoa, brown or wild rice, oats, millet, amaranth, teff, corn, and sorghum do not contain gluten. In fact, the majority of grains consumed worldwide are gluten-free.

Be wary of the fancy new boxed products though – many have taken these wonderfully nutritious grains and processed them similarly to wheat products, stripping away the majority of beneficial nutrients.

So, the gluten-free brownies, granola bars, pizza crusts, and more are just as processed as the wheat varieties and aren’t preventing or helping with diabetes, cancer or heart disease.     

Kerri Stewart, RD, LD, has been working on wellness and disease prevention with the Joe R. Utley Heart Resource Center for seven years, and has introduced nearly 700 participants to food labels in grocery store tours throughout the Upstate.