Once upon a time whole grains brought to mind heavy, clunky, hippie health food and baked bricks called cookies. But as the extreme importance of whole grains in our diet has come to the forefront, home cooks and celebrity chefs alike are using them to create fresh, wholesome, delicious dishes that don’t taste like cardboard with soy sauce. Whole grains are ready for their close-up. Read on for our guide to three things you need to know about refined grains, what to use instead, and some great whole grain recipes:
Grains are members of the grass family—the part of the grass we use is the seed (known as the kernel) and is composed of the bran (fiber), endosperm (protein and nutrients) and germ (includes B and E vitamin-rich oil). Whole grains include grains such as wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, quinoa, sorghum, spelt, rye and even popcorn. In their “whole” form, these grains contain all three parts of the kernel.
What are Refined Grains?
Refined grains (for example, white flour and white rice) normally have the bran and germ removed during processing which greatly decreases their nutritional value. In fact, when the bran is removed, 25 percent of the grain’s protein is lost as well as a minimum of 17 key nutrients.
In a twist of industrialized food irony, refined grains are usually enriched—after the true nutrients are removed, vitamins and minerals are added back. All of that refining energy used to end up with a nutritionally inferior approximation of the original. Go figure! Even after enrichment, refined grains do not have as many nutrients as whole grains and provide little fiber, if any.
Three Things You Need to Know About Refined Grains
The glycemic index (GI) ranks carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the rate that the sugars from these carbohydrates enter the blood and cause blood sugar levels to rise. When the fiber (from the bran) is removed from grains during the refining process, the refined product that remains is converted to glucose by the body much more quickly during digestion. Therefore, refining increases the GI of a particular grain. Eating too much food high on the GI can lead to loss of sensitivity to insulin—insulin is necessary for the body to be able to use sugar and this insulin resistance can lead to type 2 diabetes.
Fiber and health
Fiber is supremely important for our health, and by opting for refined grains over whole grains we deny our bodies crucial nutrients. Fiber fights against constipation, diverticultis (a colon condition), type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer. In fact, studies have shown that eating three servings of whole grains a day can lead to a 30-36 percent reduction of stroke risk, 21-30 percent reduction in type 2 diabetes risk, 25-28 percent reduction in heart disease risk, and overall better weight maintenance.
The list of nutrients in whole grains is like the “Who’s Who” of the power foods world. Specific nutrients include high concentrations of B vitamins (thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid) and minerals (Ca, Mg, K, P, Na, and Fe), elevated levels of basic amino acids, and elevated tocol levels. Many phytochemicals, some common in many plant foods (phytates and phenolic compounds) and some unique to grain products (avenanthramides and avenalumic acid), are responsible for the high antioxidant activity of whole grain foods. Whole grains can be processed in ways that retain biologically important compounds—they can be cracked, split, ground, crushed, rolled, extruded, and can be milled into flour or used to make breads, cereals and other processed foods. If a food label states that the package contains whole grain, the “whole grain” part of the food inside the package is required to have virtually the same proportions of bran, germ and endosperm as the harvested kernel does before it is processed.
The Better Option: Whole Grains
Simply switching from white rice to brown rice and white flour to whole wheat flour (or even a blend of white and whole wheat flour) is a great start. When purchasing packaged food, look for these words in the ingredients that signify whole grain: Whole grain [name of grain], whole wheat, whole [other grain], stoneground whole [grain], brown rice, oats, oatmeal and wheatberries. When you are ready to explore new varieties or expand your repertory of whole grains in the kitchen, follow this fabulous A to Z guide to grains from the Whole Grains Council to learn about different grains and their specific health benefits.
You might be surprised at how lovely whole grains are to cook with. They have a subtle earthy taste and a tender yet toothy texture. The depth of whole grains give them the strength to play nicely with strong flavors: You can combine whole grains with things that wouldn’t work with, say, white pasta. Dried fruits, nuts and strong herb combinations all stand up admirably to the heartier grains. Here are some of our favorite recipes from the Care2 collection that feature whole grains: