Only a fraction of Americans (eight percent of adults and three percent of children) are consuming the right amount of whole grains, according to a new nationwide study.
University of Minnesota researchers compared the whole grain intake of over 9,000 Americans with the recommended daily amount of three servings per day. They found that over one-third of children and more than 40 percent of adults don’t have any whole grains in their regular diet.
Whole grain products are often touted as good sources of dietary fiber, healthy fats, enzymes, minerals and vitamins. Multiple studies indicate that eating the right amount of whole grains may help reduce a person’s risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and digestive issues.
Still, some sources of whole grain—specifically wheat—remain controversial, as evidenced by the rise in popularity of gluten-free diets and nutritional experts expounding on the alleged evils of eating too much wheat, which include increased hunger impulses and dangerous blood sugar spikes.
What it really means to be “whole”
Regardless of your stance on wheat, classifying a specific food as “whole grain” is not as simple as it seems. Traditionally, the main element separating whole grains from the refined variety is that they still contain their bran and germ components, as opposed to just the pulverized, starchy endosperm.
But the definitions do vary, and many food products labeled as whole-grain can also contain refined flour and other unhealthy ingredients.
For deciphering food labels, the general rule of thumb is to look for items that list whole grain first. When looking at wheat ingredients, make sure the word “wheat” is always preceded by the word “whole,” unbromated wheat flour, enriched wheat flour and unbleached wheat flour are all just different versions of white flour.
A new paper, published in the journal Food & Nutrition Research, outlines the disparities in different definitions of whole grains. “In the past decade, consumers have been rediscovering whole grain-based products and the number of whole grain products has increased rapidly. In most countries in Europe and worldwide, however, no legally endorsed definition of wholegrain flour and products exists,” claim a group of European dietary experts participating in the HEALTHGRAIN EU project.
The problem with the majority of current descriptions is that they don’t include comprehensive lists of all included grains and the processing procedures that are permitted under the umbrella of the whole grain designation.
The full HEALTHGRAIN definition of whole grain is:
“Whole grains shall consist of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked kernel after the removal of inedible parts such as the hull and husk. The principal anatomical components—the starchy endosperm, germ and bran—are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact kernel. Small losses of components—that is, less than 2% of the grain/10% of the bran—that occur through processing methods consistent with safety and quality are allowed.”
Their list of whole grains includes:
Fonio, black fonio, Asian millet
Oats, including hull-less or naked oats
Barley, including hull-less or naked barley, but not pearled
Wheat, including spelt, emmer, farro, einkorn, khorasan wheat, durums
Rice, including brown, black, red and other colored rice varieties
Certain species of wild rice, see the full list here
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