Nutrition Column – Make Half Your Grains Whole!

Make half your grains whole! That’s the latest advice for Americans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More specifically, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommends that we eat at least 3 ounces of whole-grain cereals, breads, crackers, rice or pasta each day. One ounce is about one slice of bread, 1 cup of breakfast cereal or 1/3 cup of cooked rice or pasta. Why whole grains, and how do you know if your favorite bread or cereal counts?

Why whole grains? Whole grains are power-packed with fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals – plant compounds that help reduce the risk of many chronic diseases and ailments. For starters, whole-grain foods are a great way to boost both your soluble and insoluble fiber intakes that often are lacking in American diets. Foods containing insoluble fiber may help reduce the risk of certain types of cancers, including colon and breast cancer.

Secondly, consuming a diet rich in whole grains has been associated with reducing one’s risk of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Metabolic syndrome is a condition marked by a combination of abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, poor blood circulation, low HDL "good" cholesterol and high blood fats, all of which lead to increased risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In a recent study with more than 2,800 volunteers at Tufts University, those who ate at least three or more servings of whole-grain foods each day were least likely to have metabolic syndrome.

If this isn’t reason enough, focusing on whole grains may help with weight management. Because whole-grain foods are rich in fiber and complex carbohydrates and low in fat, they are more likely to fill you up, not out. This assumes, of course, that you go lightly on the added oils, butter, margarine, sugars and syrups.

How do you know it’s a whole grain? This can be tricky. The food industry is working to bring more whole-grain products to supermarket shelves, but the majority of the breads and cereals sold today are still made with refined flours. All grains are considered whole before they are milled or refined. That is, they contain all the original components of the grain: the bran, the endosperm and the germ.

When grains are milled, the germ and bran often are removed, leaving the starchy endosperm. When you enjoy white rice or foods made with white flour, it’s the endosperm you’re eating. This is the largest part of the grain and contains mostly carbohydrates and protein, with only small amounts of vitamins, minerals and fiber present.

The bran is the outer layer of the grain. It’s rich in fiber, phytochemicals, B-vitamins and trace minerals. The germ is the smallest part of the grain. It is packed with antioxidants, B-vitamins and vitamin E, in addition to some protein.

Examples of whole grain foods include most cooked cereals, like oatmeal, bulgar, quinoa and barley, brown rice, wild rice, whole-grain pasta, popcorn and some breads, rolls, pancake mixes and ready-to-eat cereals.

For packaged foods, the key is to check the ingredient list on the label. The first ingredient (and sometimes the second) should be labeled as "whole grain," such as whole-grain oats and whole-grain rice, or whole wheat such as whole-wheat flour. Also check out the grams of dietary fiber provided per serving. If the product provides at least 2.5 grams of fiber per serving, it’s considered a good source of fiber and can make that claim on the front of the package. If it makes a whole-grain health claim on the front of the package, it must contain at least 52 percent whole-grain ingredients by weight.

Do be aware of some tricks of the trade used to help make a product sound "healthy." The term "multi-grain" only means that the product contains more than one grain. "Stone-ground" is a technique for grinding grains. Molasses or food coloring are sometimes added to make white bread look brown. And the term "wheat" only means the product is made with wheat. Look for the word "whole" for the rest of the story.

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension