The whole truth about grains

Led by a growing chorus of health experts singing the praises of whole grains, you find yourself standing in the bulk-food section of the health food store, baffled before a wall of grain bins. You recognize oats, and wheat, but ... "Quinoa?" "Spelt?"

The FDA says you should eat three servings of whole grains a day, and with dozens of varieties to choose from, there's no excuse for sticking with the same old standards. By mixing up your grains you'll be getting more nutrients and adding more flavor to your daily cuisine. Our lesson in Grains 101 will have you cooking kamut and amaranth with ease.

Whole grain health

Before being milled or refined, all grains are "whole." That is, they contain three intact layers: the bran, the endosperm and the germ. The outer layer of bran is important for its fiber, B vitamins, minerals and proteins. The middle layer, or endosperm, provides energy in the form of carbohydrates and protein. The inner layer of germ contains vitamins B and E as well as healthy unsaturated fat and protein.

During the milling process, the germ and bran are often removed, leaving only the starchy endosperm. The result is a refined and much less-nutritious grain, such as white rice or white flour.

Eating whole grains helps prevent heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity. Whole grains also can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure and improve how the body processes insulin and glucose. Plus, they're a good source of antioxidants, which help fight disease and reduce some effects of aging.

Whole grains are high in fiber (consider that whole wheat has five times the fiber of refined wheat). Certain fibers found in whole grain foods may reduce the risk of colon and breast cancers. Fiber also makes managing your weight a little easier. Studies show that those who eat whole grains tend to weigh less and have smaller waists than those who choose refined grains. Whole grains are also more filling than refined grains, so you eat less.

When looking for whole grains, don't judge nutrient value by the front of the package. Claims such as "100 percent wheat," "cracked wheat," "stone ground" or "multi-grain" don't necessarily mean that the food is made from whole grains. Instead, read the ingredient list and look for "whole" as part of the first ingredient (e.g., whole wheat flour as opposed to refined flour). Other whole grains to look for are brown rice, oats, spelt or whole rye.

Grain guide

Thankfully, getting more whole grains into your diet doesn't mean being sentenced to a life of brown rice and bran cereal. If you keep an open mind, adding variety is easy. Here's a look at some popular grains and the dietary benefits they provide.

Amaranth: Rich in protein and calcium, it adds a robust nutty flavor to foods. Best combined with other flours in waffles, pancakes, breads, cereals or muffins.

Barley: A good source of fiber, its chewy texture and sweet, nutty flavor make it a good addition to soups and stews. Look for hulled barley, which has more protein, potassium, calcium and soluble fiber than quick-cooking pearled barley.

Brown rice: Brown rice retains the bran and germ, making it richer in fiber and other nutrients than white rice.

Buckwheat: Loaded with nutrients and with a warm, earthy flavor, buckwheat is usually ground into a dark flour for making pancakes, waffles, muffins, breads and soba noodles. Whole grain buckwheat -- also called "groats" (hulled, crushed kernels) or "kasha" (roasted groats) -- makes a good main dish. In Russian cooking kasha is used to make stuffing.

Bulgur: Bulgur or "cracked wheat" is made from whole wheat that's been steamed, dried and then cracked into particles. Bulgur is the main ingredient in tabbouleh.

Flaxseed: These tiny brown seeds come from a blue flowering crop grown extensively in Canada, and must be ground before eating so the body can absorb the nutrients. Flaxseed is a good source of lignans, a phytoestrogen that may prevent cancer, and omega-3 fatty acids, which may lower the risk of heart disease. Sprinkle ground flaxseed on cereal and yogurt, or look for them in prepared bread, bagels or crackers.

Kamut: Many people allergic to common wheat can tolerate kamut, an ancient grain high in protein with a sweet, buttery taste. Use kamut flour in place of wheat flour in most recipes and for making pasta.

Millet: Used mostly in birdseed, delicious hulled millet is more than fit for human consumption, too. It's nutritious, gluten-free and relatively easy to digest. Toast the grains to enhance its mild, nutty flavor.

Oats: Oats are best known for their cholesterol-fighting soluble fiber. When steamed and flattened, oat groats become rolled oats ("old-fashioned"), which are cooked as oatmeal or added to breads and cookies. Steel-cut oats or Scottish oats are groats that have been cut into pieces, not steamed and rolled.

Rye: A hardy grain used to make rye, pumpernickel and black breads, as well as whiskey. Its heavy taste is best when used in combination with other cereals such as oats.

Spelt: An ancient grain gaining popularity as a wheat substitute because of its similar flavor. It contains gluten, but is often tolerated by people with wheat allergies. Spelt is great for making cereals, breads, crackers and pasta.

Teff: As the smallest grain, Teff is too tiny to refine. Ethiopians make a flat, crepe-like bread called injera from teff flour. Use teff to make tasty quick breads, pancakes and waffles, and to thicken stews, soups and sauces.

Whole wheat: Ground from the entire wheat berry, whole wheat flour doesn't rise as high as white flour, but it can be used in any recipe calling for a hearty quality. Whole or cracked wheat grains are used in pilafs and salads, while whole wheat flakes are made into hot cereals or granolas.

Graham flour: Hard whole wheat flour with a course and flaky outer bran layer and finely ground germ, best known in crackers.

Quinoa: Higher in unsaturated fats and lower in carbohydrates than most grains, quinoa (pronounced "keen-wa") is a complete protein containing all eight essential amino acids. The mild flavor of this quick-cooking grain makes it a good substitute for rice or cooked oatmeal. Quinoa flour can replace white flour in baked goods.

Triticale: Triticale ("trit-ih-kay-lee") is an extremely nutritious cross between wheat and rye. Globally, triticale is used primarily for livestock feed. In Mexican cooking it's used in whole grain breads and tortillas. In the U.S., triticale is used to make savory pancakes and crackers.

Go with the grain

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Dietary Guidelines for 2005 recommend that women on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet eat six servings of grains a day, and at least three of those should be whole grains. It's not difficult to do. Consider that:

1 serving of whole grains equals:

  • 1 slice of bread
  • 1 ounce of cereal
  • 1 half cup cooked cereal, rice or pasta
  • 1 cup popcorn
  • Here are some ideas for adding healthy whole grains to your meals:

  • Start your morning with a whole grain cereal such as shredded wheat or oatmeal.
  • Try buckwheat pancakes instead of the white-flour kind.
  • Choose brown or wild rice over white rice.
  • Cook 100 percent whole wheat pasta instead of traditional semolina pasta.
  • Add barley or brown rice to soups.
  • Serve quick-cooking (only five minutes) whole grain couscous as a side dish.
  • Make sandwiches with whole grain breads.
  • Munch on whole grain snacks such as rye crisp bread or popcorn (choose trans-fat free brands).
  • Make burritos in whole wheat tortillas.
  • Sprinkle ground flaxseed over salads, soups, yogurt and cereals.

  • Annette Colby, Ph.D., R.D., is a nutrition therapist specializing in weight loss, disordered eating, fitness and women's health.

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