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Fiber facts: The trick to understanding labels

Nutrition | Comments Off on Fiber facts: The trick to understanding labels
Fiber facts: The trick to understanding labels

By Jane Harrison, R.D., Staff Nutritionist, myOptumHealth
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It seems everyone is joining the fiber movement these days. Stores are filled with products promoting their whole-grain or high-fiber status. But are they really healthier?
For most fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, the answer is a resounding yes. Things get murkier, though, when talking about the healthiness of whole grains or foods with added fiber. Just because a product is whole-grain doesn’t mean it isn’t high in sugar or sodium.

Whole grains include whole wheat, whole rye, oats, barley, corn, quinoa and brown rice, and products made from these foods. The benefit of the whole grain is that it includes the fiber and nutrient-rich bran and germ. But these are often removed during processing, leaving the nutrient-poor endosperm behind. When a grain has been stripped of the bran and germ, it is considered “refined” or “processed.”

Deciphering the whole-grain label
You will need to read closely to determine if a product is truly nutritious. Check out the following definitions:

100 percent whole-grain

•No refined flour. All the grains are “whole.”
•This will typically be your best bet, but do pay attention to the sodium and sugar content, which still may be high.

•At least 51 percent of the flour is whole-grain. A little less than half can still be processed or refined.
Made with whole grain

•Some, but not all, of the flour has been replaced with whole grains.
•Products may still be high in sugar. This is often the case with breads and cereals.
•May have as little as 1 gram of fiber per serving.

•Only indicates a mixture of different grains, all of which may be refined (bran and germ removed). Product often low in fiber.

As a rule, look for:
•At least 3 grams of fiber per serving
•No more than 1 gram of sugar per slice of bread, ounce of crackers or 2 ounces of pasta
•No more than 4 grams to 5 grams of sugar per ounce of cereal or frozen waffle

What about “functional fiber?”
These are non-digestible carbohydrates that are isolated from foods and then added to products to up their fiber content. You may recognize the names maltodextrin, polydextrose, inulin and cellulose. These pop up in the ingredient lists of various processed foods such as breads, yogurt and even ice cream. They are different from dietary fibers, which occur naturally in fruits, vegetables, beans/legumes and whole grains. Yet, they are all lumped together on the label under “fiber.”

So, does it count if most of your intake is functional fiber? Many nutritionists feel this defeats the purpose of healthy eating. Fruits, veggies, beans and 100 percent whole grains have a host of other important vitamins and minerals that contribute to overall health.

Although they are safe, it is too soon to say whether these functional fibers have any real benefit. Most studies have been done on people who eat dietary fiber, not functional fiber.

Lastly, label reading involves more than a fiber check. A product may be high in fiber, but still have high sodium (bean soups, frozen dinners) or sugar levels (cereals, breads or yogurt). Look at the overall picture for your health, not just the fiber content.

•U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary, functional, and total fiber. Accessed: 11/20/2007
•U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food and nutrition information center. Accessed: 11/26/2007