Grains of Truth

Grains are gaining ground with customers, and manufacturers are improving taste and variety. Are your menus keeping pace?

Most Americans meet the government’s daily recommendation for grain consumption, yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that nine-out-of-10 Americans don’t consume their daily goal for “whole” grains. According to The NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.–based research company, only about 10% of the grains we eat are whole grains. The rest are refined grains like white bread.

To reduce risk for chronic diseases, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises adults to eat at least five to 10 daily servings of grains (based on individual calorie needs). At least half of these servings should be whole grain; the other half should be enriched.

Whole grains are diverse, versatile and nutritious, and increasingly tastier. They include whole wheat, oats and oatmeal, corn and popcorn, brown and wild rice, couscous, wheat berries, whole rye, whole-grain barley, buckwheat (kasha), amaranth, millet, quinoa, triticale (wheat and rye), spelt, teff, sorghum, kamut and bulgur (cracked wheat). One serving (one ounce) equals one slice of bread, one cup of ready-to-eat cereal, or one-half cup of cooked cereal, rice or pasta.

New definition: In February 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defined “whole grain” as “intact, ground, cracked or cereal flakes of grain containing all three main parts: the outer bran, the inner endosperm and the inner germ (seed or embryo) in the same relative proportions as found in nature.” According to the new definition, whole grains do not include 100% bran , beans like soy, oilseeds (e.g., sunflower, flaxseed) or roots (such as arrowroot).

Processed (refined) grains like white flour contain the endosperm. Milling removes the bran and germ along with fiber, many vitamins and minerals, and phytochemicals (plant substances that may help prevent diseases).

Many refined grains are “enriched” with thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, iron and folic acid.  They may contain more of these nutrients than whole grain foods do (if not enriched).

Nutritional value: The bran contains most of the fiber, B-vitamins (e.g., thiamin, riboflavin) and minerals (e.g., iron, zinc). The endosperm provides most of the calories (energy) from protein and complex carbohydrates (starch), but less fiber, vitamins and minerals than the bran. The germ contains mostly B-vitamins, Vitamin E, polyunsaturated fat (linoleic acid) and minerals (e.g., phosphorus).

Whole grains are naturally low in sodium, fat and calories, and are cholesterol-free. Protein quality can be increased by combining grains with beans, peanut butter, dairy, eggs or meat.

Health benefits: Whole grains contain insoluble fiber (e.g., wheat, corn) and soluble fiber (e.g., oats). Insoluble fiber may help reduce risk for constipation and colon cancer. Soluble fiber may help control and reduce risk for type 2 diabetes. Soluble fiber can also reduce high blood cholesterol and blood pressure to lower risk for heart disease and stroke. Whole grains are filling and may help prevent weight gain and obesity.

The FDA allows health claims on food labels for whole-grain foods (e.g., oatmeal, whole-wheat bread) stating they may reduce risk for some cancers (e.g., breast, colon, prostate) and heart disease. Recently, the FDA approved a claim for barley (containing soluble fiber) to reduce risk for heart disease.  Health benefits for whole grains may be related to the fiber, oligosaccharides (indigestible carbohydrates), antioxidants (e.g., selenium, Vitamin E) and phytochemicals (e.g., lignans, saponins, phenols, phytoestrogens). 

Label reading: According to the FDA, “whole grain” foods must contain “51% or more whole grain ingredients by weight” to qualify for health claims. To identify whole grains, look for “100% whole wheat” or “100% whole grain” as the first ingredient or part of the name.

Whole grain and fiber are not synonymous. Fiber content is affected by many factors such as type of grain (e.g., whole wheat and oats have more fiber than rice), sugar and moisture content. High-fiber breads can contain added seeds (e.g., flax), nuts, cellulose, inulin (soluble fiber), soy or bran instead of whole-grain flour.

In January 2005, the Whole Grains Council started categorizing some whole-grain foods. An “excellent source” contains at least 16 grams of whole grain per serving, a “good source” provides at least 8 grams per serving, and “100% excellent whole grain” contains at least 16 grams and no refined grains. Since “good source” whole-grain foods could still be as much as 85% refined grains, the best bet is “100% excellent whole grain” food.

No fooling: Don’t be fooled by these label terms: enriched wheat flour, made with whole grain or whole wheat, whole grain blend, seven-grain, multigrain, 100% wheat, semolina (durum wheat), rye, pumpernickel, natural or organic. These foods can be made from mostly white (refined) flour.  Dark breads may be colored with molasses, caramel or brown sugar, yet contain no whole grains.

For white-bread lovers, new “whole grain white” breads and other products are available. But they are not 100% whole grain.