Sorting out the Whole Grain Truth
Bread or cereal that is brown in no way should be presumed to be whole grain.
Are you, like me, in search of the nutritional truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
If yes, then continue reading. You will learn all about the grain, the whole grain, and more about the grain as we unsheathe the grain and discover its nutritional wealth.
As you may know, grains, such as wheat, rye, barley, and oats, are mass-produced by many countries, including the United States. Grains are a staple food product of our daily lives. The whole grain, as it is known, contains three parts: the bran (outer husk), the endosperm (starchy part), and the germ (seed). Grains that are refined or processed lose both the bran and germ layers, thus stripping the grain of its main nutritional benefits.
In fact, the bran layer is full of fiber, B-vitamins, up to 80% of the grain’s minerals and a variety of phytochemicals – biological substances thought to be nutritionally important. The germ is also full of B-vitamins, vitamin E, other trace minerals, healthful unsaturated fats, phytochemicals, and some antioxidants (see previous nutrition articles in Radius magazine for full discussion on antioxidants). The large endosperm portion is not without valuable nutrition and contains complex carbohydrates, protein, and smaller amounts of B-vitamins.
Due to increased awareness of how nutrition directly contributes to overall health, medical and other health professionals have been promoting heightened attention among the lay public to eating more balanced meals, choosing heart-healthy food and increasing fiber (from sources such as whole grains) in the diet. This push toward improved public nutritional habits has placed the limelight directly onto whole grains.
What should we know about whole grains?
Another way of approaching this question is what distinguishes whole grains from other grain products?
Be forewarned, the answers are a little tricky.
Firstly, your grandparents were on to something when they prepared oatmeal for the family. Oatmeal, either whole or rolled oats (regular, quick or instant), contains whole grains. There are many varieties of whole grains available for purchase at the supermarket or local grocery store, some less commonly known. Common ones include barley, whole wheat, wild or brown rice, oatmeal (see above), even popcorn. Less common ones that are gaining in popularity include, but are not limited to buckwheat or kasha, bulgur (also called cracked wheat), millet, quinoa, spelt, triticale, and whole rye.
Quinoa, pronounced keen-wah, is not a true cereal grain, but rather the botanical fruit of an herb plant. The larger white varieties of quinoa are most commonly found in stores. To prepare this “grain,” rinse the dry quinoa thoroughly to remove its residual bitterness, then simmer for 15 minutes or toast it in a hot dry pan for about five minutes to enhance its nutty flavor before cooking. Millet is another grain attracting increased interest of late. The only caveat to enjoying this particular grain is its potential to induce thyroid goiters. From a practical perspective, cooking the millet, and eating it in normal amounts will do nothing more than provide you with an impressive array of vitamins, minerals, and other healthful substances.
Secondly, not all cereals or breads that advertise themselves as “whole grain” actually are. True whole grain products have either the term “whole grain” or “100% whole grain” on the package. Products that contain 51% or more of whole grain ingredients by weight may make the following FDA-approved health claim: “Diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods, and low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.” Terms that sometimes confound and often confuse the would-be purchaser include “100% wheat,” “multigrain,” “seven-grain” and “stone ground.” None of these above terms denotes true whole grain. Bread or cereal that is brown in no way should be presumed to be whole grain since molasses or other forms of sugar may be added to enhance the brown hue of the bread or cereal. Commonly seen whole grain cereals on supermarket shelves include Cheerios, Granola or muesli, Grape-Nuts, Raisin Bran, Shredded Wheat, Total, Wheat Germ, Wheaties, and oatmeal, of course.
Thirdly, there is a wonderful world of nutrition waiting for those who enjoy whole grain food and food products. Fiber is the main attraction and is in abundance in whole grain foods. In fact, one serving of a high-fiber, whole grain bread or cereal can provide more than half the daily dietary intake recommended by nutritional pundits. Whole grains are also rich in vitamin E, vitamin B-6 and the minerals calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper and zinc. Enriched flour does contain added B-vitamins and iron, but has lost practically all of its vitamins E and B-6 along with every mineral mentioned above.
Why should we care about the lost vitamins and minerals?
Recent studies regarding cancer, heart disease, and diabetes clearly point the arrow at high-quality nutrients in the diet as directly impacting one’s overall risk for these top three diseases that affect Americans. Eating more fruits and vegetables, eating heart-healthy fish and low-fat cuts of meat and poultry and drinking alcohol and related beverages in moderation can all positively influence your health. The bottom line message is as follows: Incorporating high-fiber, whole grain foods into your diet is very likely to improve not only your health, but will almost certainly reduce your risk for suffering from one or more of the common diseases that affect millions of Americans.
Now you know the grain, the whole grain, and more about the grain.
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"Sorting out the Whole Grain Truth"
Dr. Grief is a graduate of McGill University, Montreal, Canada. He is a past Residency Program Director of the University of Illinois at Chicago Department of Family Medicine, and former radio health show host in New Hampshire. Dr. Grief's main inter...