Defining “Whole Grain”: The definition of a whole grain is a grain kernel (a seed of a cereal grass) that contains all three natural parts: the endosperm, the germ, and an outer bran layer. Modern manufacturing methods often produce, particularly in the case of wheat, a product that is only the endosperm. Bran is removed to create a product that is easier to chew; and the fat in the germ can shorten shelf life, so it is often removed to satisfy the processed food market that makes up the Standard American Diet.
Reading Labels – What are you getting? The definition above is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States. But there are no regulations barring a company from touting their product as “whole grain” even if there is just a very small amount of whole grain, along with mostly refined grains. The FDA “recommends” that products labeled “100% whole grain” contain only grains that the company considers to be whole grains. When purchasing a processed product, if you want to buy whole grain, check the ingredient list to ensure that there are only whole grains listed (any grain with the word ‘whole’, brown rice, oats).
Why choose whole grain? Removing the bran and germ removes more than half of the healthy nutrients contained in a whole grain. There is really very little health benefit to eating refined grains containing only the starchy carbohydrate endosperm, so by choosing whole grain you are getting a food that has greater health benefits than grain products with some bran or germ removed.
But is a food product made with whole grains actually healthy? In my last two bi-weekly posts, I have discussed eating whole foods and defining processed. Many products touting themselves as ‘whole grain’ are quite processed foods, and many also will have other additives that may not be beneficial to your health. Furthermore, the processing of whole grains can change the effect that they have on our bodies. Any grain that is ground into a flour (whether a whole grain or not) is very rapidly converted into a sugar once consumed. This causes a rise in your blood sugar, followed by a dip, and you may be hungry again very quickly. In other words, flours have a very high glycemic index. When eating a whole grain in its whole form, it takes longer for your body to digest the starchy endosperm, which slows a rise in blood sugar and doesn’t allow for a fast crash, which maintains a more stable blood sugar and will keep you fuller longer.
A middle-ground: I definitely just said that it is better for your health to avoid flour all together. But for you, as for many people, bread and cracker products might be a staple of their diet. You may not be ready to give them up; now or ever. One option that is better than general processed flours is sprouted grain bread products. These products start with a whole grain, companies sprout them in water, and then mash them in with other ingredients and bake. This maintains the larger grain structure than in pulverized flours, and will be slower for your body to digest than ground flour.
Better Than Reading Labels: Eat the whole grains in whole form!! Bottom line, the best way to eat grains is in their most natural form made into a salad or stir fry or a nice morning cereal. Great options include brown or wild rice, quinoa, wheat berries, millet, and barley.