The Incredible Whole Grain

When I grew up, our family, like most families then and now, didn't really focus on eating whole grains. My mom did, however, use the old "Basic 4" nutrition guidelines. Our staple grains were wheat, rice, oats and corn, though most of them were refined like white pasta, white rice and white bread. I remember thinking those nice, square slices of Pepperidge Farm white bread made the very best toast when smeared with real butter. Like most kids, we liked to pick out cereals made from processed, refined grains and coated with plenty of sugary stuff like Sugar Smacks and Captain Crunch. 

We did eat an occasional whole grain or two. My parents ate shredded wheat (whole grain) though Kellogg's cornflakes (refined) also showed up in the cereal cupboard. Sometimes oatmeal (whole grain) was made for a cold winter's breakfast, though I preferred that nicely refined texture of cream of wheat. My dad's huge garden supplied plenty of sweet corn (whole grain) in the summer, and what we didn't eat was frozen for use throughout the year. Of course, every supper every Sunday night included popcorn (whole grain!) popped in a stainless pan on the stove in oil, and served in wooden bowls. 

General Mills, 2012

These days, we understand the tremendous importance of consuming whole grains and minimizing refined grains that are so deeply embedded into our processed food supply.

What exactly is a whole grain? 
Consider the single grain. It's made up of 3 parts. The outer protective covering is called the bran. This is where all the fiber and some B vitamins hang out. The smallest part is the germ. It's considered the mother-lode of nutrients, with a rich source of B vitamins, vitamin E, antioxidants, protein, and healthy fat. The largest part of the grain, is the endosperm. This whitish area is made up almost entirely of carbohydrate along with a small amount of protein.

A whole grain contains all 3 parts of the natural grain; the entire nutritional package.

Refining (milling,) is a process which separates the bran and germ from the endosperm. Unfortunately, a large part of it's nutrient level is also removed. To make white flour, wheat endosperm is ground into a powder. Though lower in nutritive value, refined grains are easier to digest, have a longer shelf life, and makes lighter, fluffier baked goods. 

Many people assume that breads and cereals made from enriched flours are just as healthy as whole grains. Not true. Enriching simply means that some of the vitamins and minerals that were originally present in the grain before processing are added back, not all. Fiber and protein are not normally replaced in the enrichment process. 

Why eat whole grains? Diets rich in whole grain have been shown to significantly lower cholesterol, LDL's, triglycerides, and insulin levels. This equates to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and type-2 diabetes.

Reach for whole grains whenever you have a choice, and minimize your consumption of refined grains. Whole grains = Green Light. Refined Grains = Yellow Light, proceed with caution!

What are some of your favorite whole grains? How do you use them?