There’s a reason why the message “whole grains are good for you” is so prominent. First, medical evidence suggests that a diet rich in whole grains greatly reduces the risks of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend three to five servings of whole grains daily for maximum health and nutritional benefit. Second, the repetition of the whole grains message is due to the plethora of refined grains in all manner of forms that are difficult to resist and sometimes masquerade as whole grains.
So, What’s a Whole Grain?
A whole grain should look like the accompanying diagram. There are three different parts that all need to be present in order for the grain to be whole. There’s a bran, a germ and an endosperm.
The Bran: Think of this as a jacket that protects the germ and endosperm from outside elements. Nutritionally, the bran contains fiber, antioxidants and B vitamins. The bran also contributes the darker brown color associated with whole grains. Some companies use brown coloring in their bread to make refined grains look like their healthier whole versions.
The Germ: Encased on the inside of the grain, the germ is the potential sprout of a new plant. The germ contains B vitamins, protein, minerals and healthy fat.
The Endosperm: The light colored, soft carbohydrate middle of the grain.
Processing Whole Grains
When grains are processed, the protective bran jacket is removed, exposing the germ and endosperm. Then, the germ is removed because it’s less shelf stable and tends to give the endosperm a yellowish tint that’s unappealing in white food products.
What remains is the naked endosperm, now lacking all of its fiber and most of its nutrients. The whole grain has been broken down into its most desired form for taste and extended shelf life. Vitamins, minerals and fiber can be added back to this form in a process that attempts to restore the endosperm to its original whole grain glory. This enriched or fortified refined grain is a poor substitute for the original. Due to processing, refined grains are digested more quickly and can lead to blood sugar spikes.
What should you do? Always read the ingredients on packages claiming to be whole grains. If the grains listed are enriched or fortified, your grain has been refined. There’s no need to enrich or fortify a grain that hasn’t been stripped of its nutrients.
The Naked Truth About Whole Grains
Your grains should never go naked. They should wear a stunning bran jacket filled with nutrients, fiber and antioxidants.