Grains, which encompass a large variety of foods, have long been dietary staples around the world. Now they are recognized for their contributions to health and their versatility. Intact whole grains are the key to these benefits, because they include all parts of the grain—the starchy endosperm (the largest part and the one from which white flour is made) and the parts removed during milling, which include the nutrient-rich germ (removed to help extend shelf life) and the fiber-rich bran that provides a barrier to protect the grain. It can take some detective work to find supermarket products that truly are made with whole grains. Here’s what you need to know when buying grains.
Whole grains and your health
Whole grains are rich sources of fiber, both soluble (the kind that lowers blood cholesterol) and insoluble (the kind that provides bulk to fend off constipation). Like beans, they are also a source of resistant starch, a newly appreciated component of grains (and some other starchy foods) that resists digestion in the small intestine but then gets broken down and fermented by bacteria in the large intestine. Resistant starch is believed to act as a “prebiotic,” fostering the growth of beneficial bacterial in the large intestine and making it more difficult for pathogens to survive. It’s also thought to provide a fuel that helps maintain the health of the cells lining the large intestine.
Whole grains also contain a range of nutrients and other potentially beneficial substances that have been stripped from refined grains. These include B vitamins (such as folate), tocopherols including vitamin E (from the oil in the germ), and minerals (such as magnesium, iron, manganese, potassium and zinc), as well as fiber and phytochemicals including flavonoids, lignans, phenols and saponins.
Diets rich in whole grains are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. People who eat more whole grains also have a lower risk of obesity. You should thus try to make at least half of your daily grains “whole grains.” For example, if you eat six servings of grains a day (about the amount recommended for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet), three of them should be 100 percent whole grain. (Alternatively, you could eat six servings of a product that is 50 percent whole grain)
Understanding whole grain products
To be sure that what you’re buying is whole grain, you need to know what to look for. A whole grain should be listed first in the ingredients—not “wheat” or “enriched wheat” or “enriched flour.” Some grains are always whole, though, including oats, wheat berries, and barley (with exception of pearled barley), even if the label doesn’t say “whole.” The Whole Grain Stamp from the nonprofit Whole Grains Council identifies good sources of whole grains. This is a voluntary program, and manufacturers must pay for the right to use the stamps. Thus, many whole-grain products don’t carry a stamp but are still excellent choices.
In your travels through the supermarket, you may come across something called “white whole wheat” flour, as well as products, such as breads, crackers, and baking mixes, made with it. This is indeed whole wheat, but from a variety called “hard white winter wheat” instead of the usual “red winter wheat.” Despite its name, hard white wheat flour is softer than flour made from red winter wheat, so it’s now being used in commercial baked goods for the softer texture and lighter color that many people prefer. Is it just as nutritious? Yes. But often, manufacturers blend this softer whole wheat in with “enriched” (that is, white) flour, which makes the product less nutritious overall.
Healthy grocery shopping tips for whole grains
- Choose whole-grain breads, cereals, pastas and even snacks, like whole-wheat pretzels.
- Buy brown rice instead of white rice. If that’s too drastic a switch for you or your family, mix together white and brown rice (though you need to cook them separately because they have different cooking times) or try a packaged rice blend.
- Wild rice is also a whole grain though it’s technically a wild grass (not a rice). It costs more and takes longer to cook than regular rice, but it’s richer in protein and other nutrients and has a nuttier flavor. Try mixing it with other grains to cut down on the cost.
- If you buy a rice mix (yes, you can find them with brown rice), watch out for the sodium in the flavor packets. One serving (1 cup, cooked) can have 700 milligrams of sodium or more. Use just half the packet, which will be flavorful enough. Keep in mind, rice mixes don’t offer much convenience (you still have to cook the rice) and often cost a lot more.
- Go for oats. Don’t just cook them for breakfast: Substitute rolled oats for white bread crumbs in meat loaf, meatballs and casseroles, and add oats to the batter or dough when baking muffins, breads and cookies.
- Instead of white flour, buy whole wheat, white whole wheat, or other whole-grain flour for making pancakes and waffles and for simple baking recipes.
- Pick up popcorn, which counts as a whole grain.
- Check out wheat germ. It’s not the whole grain but is nutrient rich. Add wheat germ to batters for baked goods and pancakes. You can mix it into yogurt, too, or sprinkle it over cereal.
- Explore alternative whole grains.