Let’s face it, many food labels can be misleading. They can lead us to believe that a product contains (or doesn’t contain) something when that’s not really the case, or labels may not tell the whole story. While touting “I’m a good healthy choice” on one count, closer inspection reveals the product fails to deliver on others—like too much added sugar, salt, or saturated fats.
Take the term “whole grain” for example; a study by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) reviewed five different industry and government guidelines for classifying foods as whole grain:
- The Whole Grain Stamp, a packaging symbol for products containing at least 8 g of whole grains per serving. (created by the Whole Grain Council, a non-governmental organization supported by industry dues.)
- Any whole grain as the first listed ingredient. (as defined by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s MyPlate and the Food and Drug Administration’s Consumer Health Information guide)
- Any whole grain as the first ingredient without added sugars in the first three ingredients (also the standard used by USDA’s MyPlate)
- The word “whole” before any grain anywhere in the ingredient list (recommended by USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010)
- The “10:1 ratio,” a ratio of total carbohydrate to fiber of less than 10 to 1, which is approximately the ratio of carbohydrate to fiber in whole wheat flour (recommended by the American Heart Association’s 2020 Goals)
Then the researchers analyzed the nutritional content of 545 grain products (breads, bagels, English muffins, cereals, crackers, cereal bars, granola bars and chips.)
As it turned out, products with the Whole Grain Stamp were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, but also contained more sugar and calories compared to products that didn’t bear the stamp.
If you had followed any of the three USDA criteria for identifying a healthy grain product, your results would be mixed.
The American Heart Association’s standard based on a 10:1 ratio of carbohydrates to fiber proved to be the best indicator of overall healthfulness. Products meeting this ratio were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, sugar, and sodium, without higher calories than products that did not meet the ratio.
This study underscores a few important tips that can help you make healthy food choices:
- Choose whole foods instead of processed foods.
- If purchasing processed foods, choose the one made from whole ingredients without additives (preservatives, dyes, artificial flavors, etc.)
- Scan the “Nutrition Facts” box and ingredients list. Choose a product:
- without added sugars
- no trans fats (hydrogenated oils) and little or no fat overall
- low sodium
- fewest/no additives
We cover these tips and more in greater detail in our guide, Fooled by Food Labels: 9 Deceptive Claims to Watch Out For.