Most of us eat some type of grain every day. We may start with a bowl of cereal or toast, top up midday with a sandwich and perhaps enjoy a pasta or rice dish in the evening. It's no wonder; grains are a great source of carbohydrates, naturally low in fat, a readily available source of protein and are highly affordable.
Grains are the seeds of grasses that are cultivated for food. They come in many shapes and sizes, from large kernels of corn to very small quinoa seeds. Examples of commonly used grains include: corn, rice, wheat, oats, barley, quinoa, wild rice, millet and rye.
Like most foods, there are good, better and best choices when buying grains or products made with grain. The best choice is to look for whole grain foods. Whole grains include: brown rice, whole-wheat flour, popcorn, oatmeal, barley, bulgur, quinoa, wild rice and cracked wheat. (Oats are the most nutritious of the cereal grasses.) Grains that haven't been refined by having their outer bran and germ removed are considered whole grains. Whole grains are better for you because that outer bran and germ are where most of the protein, fiber and other important nutrients reside.
Refined Grains - What They Lack
Grains that have had their outer bran and germ removed are referred to as refined grains and include white flour, white rice and most cornmeal. Sometimes refined grains will be enriched with vitamins and minerals that are added back after milling, but it just isn't the same. Whole grains are still a better nutritional bet than enriched refined grains. It's the package of nutrients that are important, not the individual components. (In other words, Mother Nature is better at creating a healthy product than Sarah Lee.)
Refined wheat has been used in baking bread as far back as the Middle Ages. The nobility were served white bread while the peasants ate the dark stuff, mainly because the milling process was expensive and because the whole grain bread was tough, chewy and tasted like dirt. The Industrial Revolution took milling to a whole new level with the advent of steel grinding rather than stone grinding. Millers also found that if the germ was removed in addition to the bran the shelf life improved dramatically because the germ contains oils that can become rancid if kept too long. Refined grains became cheaper, but the new processes destroyed virtually all of the remaining nutrients.
Because refined grains retain all of the carbohydrates and very little of the protein and fiber, generally speaking they convert to glucose in the bloodstream much faster than whole grains and thus have a higher glycemic index and a higher insulin demand in the body. Diabetics and those at risk of becoming diabetic should always steer towards whole grain products and stay away from the white stuff. In a pinch, you can lower the glycemic index of refined grains by pairing them with legumes (beans, peas, lentils, etc.) or fresh vegetables.
The natural food movement in the 1970's helped to make whole grains more palatable and digestible. The milling of whole grains has improved and new strains of wheat are grown that aren't as hard and earthy as the traditional red wheat. The old-style brown bread (which the comedian Robin Williams once likened to roofing tiles) is long gone. Now you can find whole-wheat bread that is soft, delicious and even kid-friendly.
Be a Label Reader
Many products are now marketed as having 'whole-grain goodness' or 'multi-grain' or even 'made with whole-wheat flour'. None of these designations mean that whole grains were used as a significant component of the product. Read the label. The first ingredient should be the whole-grain ingredient the product purports to include. If the package claims 'an excellent source of fiber', the product should offer at least 5 grams of dietary fiber per serving. (A 'good source of fiber' is 3 grams per serving.) The USDA recommends adults have between 25 and 30 grams of fiber per day. In addition to whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes are great sources of dietary fiber.
When shopping for whole grain flours and other products, check out Bob's Red Mill line. Go to the website to read a little about Bob and his high ingredient and milling standards and watch Bob himself give you a tour of the facilities. (Okay, so the videos are a little hokey and down-home, but Bob's the real deal. Great products and strong, unwavering principles.)
If you haven't tried some of the whole grains discussed in this article, get started with the suggested recipes. They come together quickly and taste great, and add a little variety to your current dinnertime repertoire. And remember, you can always up the nutritional ante of some of your favorite recipes just by substituting whole-wheat pasta and brown rice for the white varieties. Happy cooking, happy eating!