What are the key differences between “refined” grains and “whole” grains? Is a box of Cheerios or Lucky Charms that has “whole grain” stamped on the box a “whole grain” cereal? Is instant oatmeal a whole grain? Is a commercial loaf of bread that says “whole grain” on the label truly whole grain?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, think again.
Most grain contains inedible chaff (fed to animals), bran (the oil-rich outer layer), germ (the grain seed's nutrient-rich embryo), and the endosperm (the starchy center). Under the FDA's definition of whole grain, a grain is still “whole,” even it has been milled and separated into its three edible constituents (bran, germ, and endosperm), as long as those constituents are later mixed back in in proportions similar to the intact grain.
This fluid definition enables the food industry to make “whole grain” products that taste — and act — nothing like whole grain. Thus, a serving of less-processed steel-cut oats with raisins may be more healthful than a serving of highly processed, oat-based Lucky Charms or Quaker Oat Squares. Unfortunately, FDA-required labeling does not explain this distinction to consumers who eat the boxed cereal believing it will provide them with three daily servings of whole grains.
What constitutes a “daily serving” of whole grains? The amount you need varies based on your age, sex, and physical activity level. In general, adults need between 5- and 8-ounce equivalents of grains each day, and at least half (if not all) of these are recommended to come from whole grains. As a gauge, a 1-ounce equivalent equals 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of cereal, or 1/2 cup of cooked pasta or rice.
Grains are classified as whole, enriched, fortified, and milled (refined), which are defined as follows:
Whole grains are cereal grains that contain the germ, endosperm, and bran (as opposed to “refined” grain, which retains only the endosperm). These unrefined grains haven't had their bran and germ removed by milling. When buying grains and grain products, check the ingredient list the ensure the word "whole" precedes the grain, such as "whole wheat flour." Ideally, the whole grain will be the first ingredient in the list, indicating that the product contains more whole grain than any other ingredient.
Enriched grains have had some of the nutrients lost during processing added back in. The B vitamins are often re-introduced to “enrich” the grains, but the lost natural fiber cannot be added back in. Enriched grains are common in the average American diet.
Fortified grains have had nutrients that don't occur naturally in the grains added to them. Most refined grains are enriched, and many enriched grains are also fortified with other vitamins and minerals, such as folic acid and iron. Some countries require certain refined grains to be enriched. Whole grains may or may not be fortified.
Milled grains (refined grains) are stripped of their bran and germ to give them a finer texture and extended shelf life. Milling also removes most nutrients, including fiber. Whole grains are better sources of fiber than refined grains and contain several important trace minerals, such as selenium, potassium, and magnesium.
In the US, many people eat mostly refined grains or refined grain products, such as white bread, white pasta, and white rice. Many commercial products, like breakfast cereals, crackers, desserts, and pastries, are also made with refined grains.
Naturally, there are plenty of healthier choices to explore if you are interested and open-minded to trying new, heartier, and healthier grains and pseudo grains.
10 ways to incorporate more grains into your diet
Experiment with small amounts of a new grain each week. Add a new grain as a side dish to your main dish. For example, quinoa (a pseudo grain) is wholesome and filling. High in protein and gluten free, it tastes delicious combined with cherry tomatoes, avocado, salad greens, and herbs (basil or oregano works well). Even mixed with just some herbs, olive oil, salt, and pepper, quinoa tastes great!
Substitute white rice with barley, bulgur, spelt, or farro. Hearty and filling, a little of these grains goes a long way to keeping you satiated for a long time. (½ cup of them uncooked serves 2 to 3 people.) However, these four grains contain gluten.
Substitute kasha (buckwheat), a gluten-free grain, for white rice. Much more nutritious then white rice, kasha is hearty enough to stand up to spicy Indian food. Kasha also works well in grain salads. Cook and combine it with arugula, sauteed mushrooms, roasted red pepper, and roasted pine-nuts for a tasty nutrient-dense salad. Chopped up and lightly sauteed tofu, seitan, or tempeh is a great protein addition to such salads.
Add barley and wild rice to casseroles and soups, such as mixed vegetable soup, mushroom soup, or chicken soup.
Substitute whole wheat couscous for refined couscous in salads.
Add whole grains, such as cooked brown rice or whole-grain bread crumbs, to minced tofu, tempeh, meat, or poultry for extra body.
Use rolled oats or crushed whole-wheat bran cereal in recipes instead of dry bread crumbs.
If you make pureed lentil soups, add cooked barley, spelt, or quinoa at the end to give it a more chunky taste and look and more added nutrition.
Add whole grains to your baked goods. Instead of using the full amount of all-purpose flour in a recipe, use half of the required amount mixed with an equal amount of whole wheat flour. For example, when a bread recipe calls for 2 cups all-purpose flour, use 1 cup all-purpose and 1 cup whole wheat. You can also use white wheat flour instead of “brown” whole wheat. Another option is to replace one-third of the flour with whole-grain oats.
Expose your kids to whole grains at an early age. Try whole-wheat pitas as crusts for make-your-own individual pizzas. Use white whole wheat flour in baked goods, and incorporate whole grains such as quinoa into foods that have other flavors, such as black bean soup. Serve burgers on whole-grain buns or or a bed of whole grains. Serve brown rice instead of white rice with sauteed veggies.
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3. Whole grains, half truths, and lots of confusion. Mother Nature Network.