Whole Grain 101

June 18, 2010

What exactly are whole grains?

What exactly are whole grains? 
Whole grains include whole or cracked wheat, corn, cornmeal, popcorn, brown and colored rice, oatmeal and whole oats, barley, quinoa, sorghum, spelt and whole rye. Other examples are, grains and flours made from the following: amaranth, buckwheat, bulgur, emmer, farro, grano (lightly pearled wheat), millet, triticale, wheat berries and wild rice (which looks like a rice but is actually a different kind of grain, more akin to a grass).

Why are whole grains so important? 
Whole grains, or foods made from them, contain all the essential parts and naturally occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed. They provide fiber, vitamin E, and minerals such as iron, zinc and magnesium.  The outer skin of the seed contains B vitamins, antioxidants and fiber-rich bran; the germ holds the protein, minerals and healthy fats; and the endosperm (the main part of the grain between the bran and the germ) contains protein, carbohydrates and smaller quantities of vitamins and minerals. The bran and germ contain 25 percent of the protein in whole grains and the majority of the nutrients. When highly processed, these valuable nutrients and proteins are lost- not to mention healthful fiber.

Whole grains fight disease 
One of the most important components of whole grains is fiber, a key to good intestinal health and optimal cholesterol levels.  Americans are advised to consume between 25 and 35 grams of fiber per day- on average we’re consuming about half that.  If you don’t eat foods with enough fiber (like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) toxins are not properly flushed from the body, which can lead to chronic constipation, lethargy and the potential for disease. The other healthful ingredients in whole grains play an important part in overall health: antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals and protein keep our bodies healthy, operating efficiently, and increase our strength. 

Research has shown that just three daily servings (see below for serving size) of whole grains can reduce the risk of heart disease by 25 to 35 percent, Type 2 diabetes by 21 percent to 27 percent, digestive system cancers by 21 percent to 43 percent. Although whole grains are best, partially processed ones also offer healthful benefits. If the grain has been cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded, lightly pearled and/or cooked but retains both the bran and germ, it will deliver approximately the same rich balance of nutrients found in the original grain seed. 

Researchers at Harvard recently reported that Americans who eat two or more servings of brown rice a week reduce their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by about 10 percent compared to those who eat it less than once a month. And risk reduction is increased as consumption increases.  The researchers even demonstrated that by just replacing a third of a serving of white rice with brown each day could reduce one’s risk of Type 2 diabetes by 16 percent.  Keep in mind, a serving is a cup of cooked rice.

The Harvard researchers found that increased consumption of white rice – even at a low level of intake- is associated with increased risk for type 2 diabetes.  Reducing one’s risk is as easy as replacing white rice with the same amount of brown rice or other whole grains.

How can you add fiber-rich whole grains to your diet? 
It's easy to meet the Recommended Daily Allowance. Use whole-grain bread, such as rye, whole-wheat or multigrain for your mid-day sandwich. For breakfast, eat oatmeal or buckwheat cereal, and whole-meal waffles or pancakes. Add whole grains with dinner as a side or main dish, and you've easily and simply met your RDA goals. A half cup of cooked grains, 1 cup of popcorn, 2/5 cup cooked oatmeal, or one slice of whole-grain bread is a single serving.  Remember to read labels and look for ‘whole wheat/grain’ on ingredient lists – it should be the first item; also choose whole grain products with at least 5 grams of fiber per serving, and if you don’t know what a lot of the ingredients are on the list, leave it on the shelf!

More whole grain suggestions: 
•    Eat corn tortillas, whole-grain pita bread or whole-grain bagels. Even whole-grain English muffins will amp the gram intake from four to 10 grams per serving. 
•    Add cooked grains to soups, salads and casseroles. A half-cup of bulgur, wild rice, brown rice or quinoa will give you six to eight grams of fiber. 
•    Snack on the good stuff: multigrain chips and crackers or air-popped popcorn (instead of salt-and-fat-drenched microwave ones).
•    And for home bakers, substitute half of the white flour with whole-wheat flour in your regular recipes for cookies, muffins, and cakes