The Whole Truth About Grains
Getty ImagesPacked with B vitamins and fiber, and essential nutrients such as selenium, magnesium, and potassium, whole grains are great allies in the fight against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. In trying to add more whole grains to your diet you may be eating sandwiches on whole-wheat bread and breakfasting on quick-cooked oatmeal. But unless you read food labels carefully, you may not be getting your fair share. Here's a simple introduction to the wide world of whole grains that will help you make them a delicious part of everyday foods.
What are whole grains?
Grains are the seeds of grasses, and have three parts: the bran, the endosperm, and the germ (the seed's embryo), and each part contains particular vitamins and minerals. In a whole grain, all three parts are intact, providing B vitamins, essential fatty acids, protein, and lignans (a cholesterol-lowering phytonutrient). Refined grains (such as white flour and white rice) have had their bran and germ removed; whole grains, such as buckwheat and wild rice, are intact. The difference? Refined grains give you some protein and B vitamins, but you miss out on almost twenty nutrients and a quarter of the protein, which are in the bran and germ.
Label watch: Make sure it says "100% whole grain"
It's not the type of product that defines whole grains. You can get them ground, cracked, whole, or made into flour, cereals, and a long list of other foods. But if a product claims to be whole grain, that grain should be the first thing listed on the ingredients label. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a whole-grain product is one that contains a minimum of 51% whole grains by weight. Whole wheat, for example, does not necessarily equal whole grain, which means that the whole-wheat flour in your bread may refined. For more help sorting out whole-grains labels, visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Too chewy for you?
Many of us avoid whole grains simply because we think they're dry and chewy, with an overbearing earthy taste, unlike smoother white pasta and rice. And it's true that back in the 1970s, when the health-food craze kicked in, those bulgur burgers and all-kamut muffins were often akin to eating, "mud and grass," as a friend of mine used to say. Now, though, we have a sea of recipes that work with the texture and flavor of whole grains.
Try these quick ideas from the Whole Grains Council on adding whole grains to foods you already eat:
• Add bulgur or barley to bread stuffing.
• Add a half-cup of wild rice, wheat berries, or barley to a soup.
• Add oats to meatloaf (3/4 cup per pound of meat), or to yogurt for a snack.
• Try one of the 50/50 pastas, with half whole-grain and half white flour.
There's an intensity of flavor to buckwheat (which is not wheat at all), which you can buy raw (as groats), as flour, or as kasha (toasted buckwheat, used in breakfast cereals). Kasha with balsamic roasted vegetables is one easy way to to try it (your family will love it) or whip up some unbelievably delicious chicken and soba noodles with peanut sauce.
Firm and subtly sweet, kamut is an ancient grain you often find in healthy cereals, but it also makes a tasty flour used in pasta and rich, dense breads. Cook some up: Soak kamut in water to cover 8 hours (overnight), then simmer, covered, until tender but still has some chew, 45 to 60 minutes. Drain, then add it to salad of oranges and fennel.
Eat slow-cooked, steel-cut oats for more whole-grain nutrition. You can cook them overnight, as in this overnight oatmeal recipe, which makes for a quick morning meal.
Another firm and nutty-flavored grain, spelt makes a flavorful pasta. And your kids will never know there's spelt flour in these chocolate cupcakes.