Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

The Confusing World of Whole Grains

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Recent research tells us that fiber-rich diets lowers the risk of diabetes and heart disease. This message is hyped by almost every health agency as well as the grain food industry. Although this advice is not inherently wrong, it may contain some caveats for some people.

What is a Whole Grain?

A whole grain in its pure intact, unprocessed form, it is a seed that has three major components – the outer bran (a fiber-rich coating), the inner endosperm (mainly containing starch) and the germ (a reproductive kernel).

What is a Refined Grain?

Refined grains usually only contain the endosperm as the germ and the bran is stripped away during processing. If it is enriched, some but not all nutrients are put back – thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, iron and folate.

Does a product always contain 100% whole grains?

A new definition adopted by the FDA in 2006, states “whole grain” refers to any product containing 51% by weight of a mixture of bran, endosperm and germ in the proportions one would expect to see in an intact grain can be considered a whole grain.

What are the Whole Gain Council Stamps?

A label can say “whole grain” but that does not guarantee it is all whole grain. You should look for Stamps on the front of the package.

If it bears the 100% Stamp, all of its grain ingredients are whole. These brands also contain at least 16 grams (one full serving) of whole grain per serving, according to the Whole Grain Council. If it bears the Basic Stamp, it contains at least 8 grams (a half serving) of whole grains per serving, but may also fit the FDA definition –  some refined grain or less than 51% of whole grains by weight.

What are the Health Benefits of Whole Grains?

Since products only have to contain only 51% of the separated whole grain components, they may have less fiber and lower nutrient levels so the claimed benefits may not apply to these products.

For example, for a product meeting the new definition, a person would have to eat 10 bowls of Multigrain Cheerios, 16 slices of whole wheat bread or nine cups of brown rice to get the recommended fiber intake for one day.

What Do the Critics of Whole Grains Say?

Critics say that most grains cannot be eaten in their natural state, i.e, they must be milled and ground to some degree so all grains undergo some processing. They also say that grains contain what is referred to “anti-nutrients” like phytates that can interfere with the absorption and assimilation of minerals. Oatmeal is an exception. Oats are different from wheat, rye and barley .Oats are minimally processed and retain their bran and germ that give us all the true benefits of whole, intact grains. (unless they are the instant kinds).

What About the Fiber?

As far as fiber goes, many grains are not much better than refined grains. Look at the cereals and you will find it hard to find a serving of cereal grains that provide more than 1 or 2 grams of fiber unless intact whole grains like oats or bran is present.

What are Fiber Rich Foods?

The power-house foods loaded with fiber are avocado (11 grams) or a serving of beans with 11-7 grams as well as fruits, vegetables and legumes. The endosperm of grains is starch-rich (chains of glucose) that can raise blood sugar levels very quickly, especially in diabetics.

What About Gluten?

Then there are the gluten issues found in wheat, rye, and barley. There has been an increase in the number of celiac sufferers and now there is evidence that some people may be non-celiac gluten sensitive. Wheat is also heavy in fructans that are chains of carbohydrates that may trigger symptoms in irritable bowel patients.

Should You Give Up on Whole Grains?

Of course, not – whole grains are an excellent source of calories and nutrients. However, most of these nutrients and calories are also found in other foods such as fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, eggs, and dairy products. There is a slight edge in eating whole grains instead of refined grains – all the nutrients lost in processing are not put back, just the five previously mentioned that are required by law.

What If I Have Digestive Problems with Grains?

If you like them and they do not cause undesirable symptoms, eat them.  The benefits are there when the whole intact grain is present. However, most grain products- cookies, biscuits, cereals, do not contain the whole intact grain. They are not the best bet since many of them can also be high in sugar and fat.

What to Do

Read the labels carefully, especially the ingredient labels

Find an excellent guide HERE. 




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