Mary Saucier Choate, M.S., R.D., L.D.
Co-op Staff Dietitian and Food and Nutrition Educator
What exactly is a whole grain anyway? Whole grains, unlike refined grains, retain their fiber, antioxidant vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, nutrients that protect health. The Whole Grains Council defines them as having 100% of the original kernel present. This means that all three parts of the grain kernel: the bran, germ, and endosperm, must be present to qualify as a whole grain.
Whole grains help maintain normal insulin and blood sugar levels. In studies, people who eat the most cereal fiber—the kind of fiber found in whole grains—have an up-to-30-percent reduction in their risk of type 2 diabetes compared with those who eat the least. Promising research shows diets higher in whole grains may also decrease your risk of heart disease and some cancers and may help you to maintain a healthy body weight. In addition, whole grains are an excellent source of energy-boosting complex carbohydrates (also known as starches) and they are naturally low in calories, fat, sodium, and sugar. Whole grains are a great place to get disease-fighting phytochemicals such as lignans, phytoestrogens, and phytic acid. The fiber in whole grains is a combination of soluble fiber—the kind that may help to reduce cholesterol levels—and insoluble fiber, or roughage, the kind that helps to keep you regular.
When whole grain is refined, a number of beneficial components are removed, including the bran, germ, and as many as 16 vitamins and minerals. Only five of these lost vitamins and minerals—B1, B2, B3, iron, and folic acid—are added back when the refined flour is “enriched.” Compared with refined enriched wheat flour, whole-wheat flour contains 200 to 700 percent more calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, pantothenic acid, and vitamins B6 and E.
For these reasons and more, at least half of the grain products you eat each day should be whole grains. But it can be hard to spot truly whole-grain products. Some manufacturers have the words “Made with Whole Grain” splashed in big letters across their packages, even though the product inside contains only a half serving of whole grain or even less. Breads may be labeled in big letters announcing whole wheat, multigrain, or seven grain, while they are actually made with mostly refined white flour. The manufacturer needs to add only a negligible amount of whole grain to a product to call it whole grain. Take these simple steps to be sure you are buying a whole grain food: