How to Read a Food Label

Read the fine print

Words on a package may be misleading

1) Ingredients must be listed in decreasing order of abundance. For example, if you’re buying a loaf of whole wheat bread, the first ingredient should be “whole wheat flour” or some other whole grain flour. Remember that “wheat flour” and “organic unbleached wheat flour” are actually white flour, which you would do well to minimize. If the second item in the ingredient list of the loaf of bread is “wheat flour”, the bread could contain nearly as much white flour as whole wheat flour. The photo shows a label of a loaf of bread that you might think is whole wheat bread because of the bread's dark color. It’s not whole wheat bread. Organic or not, it’s white bread. By the way, food label data are based on a serving size, as in “one slice of bread,” which is stated on the label.

2) What does “whole grain” actually mean? According to the Whole Grain Council, “100% of the original kernel – all of the bran, germ, and endosperm – must be present to qualify as a whole grain.” In 2014, an expert panel (Ferruzzi et al. 2014) proposed that 8 grams of whole grain per 30 grams serving, without a fiber requirement, be considered a minimum content of whole grains that is nutritionally meaningful. A food providing at least 8 grams of whole grains per 30-gram serving should be defined as a whole-grain food." There is no USDA rule in this regard. Food researchers commonly define “whole grain” as a product that contains less than 10 times as much total carbohydrate as fiber. By this standard, the bread label in the photo states that the product contains 21 grams of carbs and 1 grams of fiber per serving, it’s not whole grain bread. In this case, there’s 10.5 times as much carb as fiber (21/2=10.5). Products said to contain “whole grains” can contain mostly white flour.

3) Check the amount of added sugar. Generally, you want less as opposed to more. Health experts recommend limiting added sugar to 20 and 36 grams per day for adult women and men, respectively. For comparison, a can of sugar-sweetened soda may have over 42 grams of added sugar.

4) Check the amount of fiber. A new study (Reynolds et al. 2019) found that daily intake of 24-29 grams of fiber led to the greatest reduction in risk of mortality. Higher intakes of fiber predicted other health benefits, such as reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. The authors noted that even more fiber than that would probably be healthful. In contrast, Americans typically eat about 14-16 grams of fiber each day.

5) Check for protein. Most Americans eat most of their daily protein at diner. Yet, recent research (Arentson-Lantz et al. 2015) indicates that eating similar amounts of protein for breakfast, lunch, and dinner promotes muscle health.

6) The USDA last year required food manufacturers to eliminate trans-fats from their products. But USDA provided a loophole. A product can have less than 0.5 grams of trans-fat per serving without stating that the product does, in fact, contain trans-fats. Trans-fats were a major staple of snack foods and other ultra-processed food-like materials.

Developing the healthy habit of reading food labels will help you purchase healthier foods and avoid products with dubious nutritional value.

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