We know that the best sources of dietary fiber and vitamins are fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Yet these are foods that frequently come up short in our diets.
Processed, fortified, packaged "junk" foods seem to scream for our attention. Food marketers tweak the truth in many ways to get our food dollars. Be aware of three major ways, described below.
Whole grain versus "Made with" whole grain. Look for ingredient lists showing whole wheat, oats or another whole grain first. This assures that you're getting whole grain foods and the valuable nutrients they provide. A whole grain food gets more than half of its weight from one or more whole grains. By definition, "whole" means that all three parts of the grain are present -- the bran, germ and endosperm. Food labels list the ingredients in order of weight.
Many whole grain products now display the golden-yellow and black whole grains stamp. There are two versions of the stamp. The stamp which says "100 Percent Whole Grain" indicates all the grain ingredients in the product are whole grains and a serving contains at least 16 grams of whole grains. If the basic "Whole Grain" stamp is displayed, the product contains at least eight grams of whole grains per serving. A total of 48 grams of whole grains are recommended daily.
Added sugars. It's very difficult to calculate how much added sugar you eat. The average American eats 22 teaspoons of added sugars each day. That far exceeds the six to nine teaspoons a day recommended for adults. It's quite possible for children and teens to eat enough sugar every year to match -- or exceed -- their body weight.
Food products are not required to list how much sugar is added and how much is naturally occurring. Ingredient lists use a variety of names for added sugar, including corn sweeteners, dextrin, fruit juice concentrate, malt syrup and molasses.
When all the different forms of added sugars are combined, you may find that sugar, in some form or another, is the main ingredient of a product. Regular -- not diet -- soft drinks are the main source of added sugars in the U.S. To reduce your intake of added sugars, drink 36 or fewer ounces per week of all sugar-sweetened beverages -- including soft drinks and fruit drinks.
Dietary fiber. Fiber is associated with lower blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels, with improved "regularity" and with weight loss, to name just a few benefits. Many health experts recommend increasing dietary fiber intakes. However, many products on the market advertise a higher fiber content because of added isolated fibers, mostly purified powders called inulin, polydextrose and maltodextrin. Isolated fiber that's added to foods that are not traditional source of dietary fiber--such as ice creams, yogurts, juices and drinks -- does not have all the health benefits of natural dietary fiber.
People living in the United States spend about 90 percent of their food dollars on processed foods. Yet processed foods provide less nutrition and fewer health benefits than fruits, vegetables and whole grains. By decreasing our intake of processed foods, we could save money. We'd save on health care costs, too.