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Decoding Whole Grains

What to look for when you're in the grocery store.

Ever stand in a grocery aisle, poring over nutrition labels — only to find they're more confusing than enlightening? You’re not alone.

The American Heart Association says that whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet; consuming at least three servings daily can help lower cholesterol. Whole grains' high dietary fiber content supports gastrointestinal health and protects against colon cancer. Because they contain all parts of the grain (bran, germ and endosperm), your body digests whole grains slowly. This helps you feel fuller after meals and stabilizes blood sugar levels, aiding weight loss efforts.

Packaging and nutrition label mumbo-jumbo are partially to blame for the confusion. Some of the worst offenders: packaging that boasts "made with whole grains," when in fact they're mostly made from refined wheat flour.

To avoid labeling traps, look to these strategies to help you meet your whole grain goals.

  • Start with the ingredients. Ingredients are shown in descending amounts, which means the first few listed make up the majority of the product. To verify a "whole grains" claim, make sure the first ingredient begins with "whole" (whole wheat, whole grain, etc.) Oats and oat grains are good options, too. "Enriched flour" can indicate a trap. It's highly processed and the nutrients have been stripped from the grain. And multi-grain isn't always a safe bet either — it's probably a mix of a few whole grains and several more refined.

  • Focus on the "fiber" line. You need at least 25 grams of dietary fiber a day. On the Dietary Fiber line on the nutrition label, look for foods that provide 5% or more of your daily value (DV) of fiber. Anything less than that is considered too low.

  • Avoid tricks of the trade. The FDA does not require manufacturers to disclose the percentage of whole grains versus refined ones. Therefore, products marked "made with whole grains" may only contain tiny amounts of whole grain nutrients. Check the ingredients list ("whole" should come first) and the dietary fiber line (5% or more) to make sure they actually support those claims.

  • Go for grains you can see. In terms of health benefits, the best whole grains are, in fact, whole. These grains contain all the essential and naturally occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed. That means that many times you can actually see the grain. Barley, oats, quinoa, brown/wild rice, rye, wheat and buckwheat all qualify and provide maximum benefits. Generally, pre-packaged or processed food is low in these type grains, so look for them in the bulk section or as stand-alone products.

Add these foods to boost your family's whole grain intake

  • Bread: whole wheat bread, whole grain flour tortillas and pita pockets.
  • Breakfast foods: steel-cut and old-fashioned oatmeal, low-sugar granolas or cereals made with kasha (buckwheat), kamut or spelt.
  • Pasta: whole wheat penne and whole grain spaghetti noodles.
  • Rice: brown or wild rice, pilafs made with barley, bulgar, millet or high-protein quinoa.

For more healthy eating articles to support your family's balanced diet, turn to Fit Facts, your source for wellness articles and previous challenges.