Why are whole grains healthier?

All grains start their life as whole grains.  In their natural state, whole grains are the entire seed of a plant.  This seed, or kernel is made up of three key parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm.  The bran is the multi-layer outer skin and contains important antioxidants, B vitamins and fiber.  The germ is the embryo which will sprout into a new plant.  It contains many B vitamins, some protein, minerals and healthy fats.  The endosperm is the germ’s food supply, which provides the essential energy to the young plant.  The endosperm is by far the largest portion of the kernel.  It contains starch carbohydrates, proteins and small amount of vitamins and minerals.  Whole grains contain all three parts of the kernel.  Refining normally leaves only the endosperm.  Without the bran and germ, about 25% of a grain’s protein is lost, along with at least seventeen key nutrients.  Whole grains may be eaten whole, cracked, split or ground.  They can be milled into flour or used to make breads, cereals and other foods. When making food choices to include whole grains, be sure to read the list of ingredients carefully.  Often things we think of as whole wheat, are simply made with processed wheat flour and brown coloring to make it appear as if the whole grain was used.  The ingredients to look for are whole grain (name of the grain), whole wheat, whole (name of the grain), brown rice, oats, oatmeal, wheat berries.  Ingredients to steer away from are wheat flour, semolina, durum wheat, organic flour, multigrain, enriched flour, degerminated corn, bran, rice and wheat germ.  None of this latter list is considered whole grain.

Just as fruits and vegetables contain disease-fighting phytochemicals and antioxidants, whole grains do also. There is a large variety of whole grains beyond those we are most familiar with.

Amaranth – Amaranth kernels are tiny, resemble brown caviar when cooked and contain no gluten.  It has a lively, peppery taste and a high level of protein.

Barley – Barley is one of the oldest cultivated grains and has a particularly tough hull which means it is a slow cooking grain.  Hulled barley is generally only found in health food stores.  It has had the outer hull or bran removed, but still has much more fiber and minerals than pearled barley.  Lightly pearled barley is not technically a whole grain since some of the bran is missing, but it is still full of fiber and much healthier than fully-refined grains.

Buckwheat – Buckwheat is a cousin of rhubarb and therefore not technically a grain, although its nutrients, nutty flavor and appearance have led to its adoption into the grain family.

Bulgur – Bulgur results from wheat kernels being boiled, dried, cracked and then sorted by size.  Bulgur is an extremely nutritious fast food for quick side dishes since it only needs to be boiled for 10 minutes to be ready to eat.

Corn – The sweet corn-on-the-cob we often eat and think of as a vegetable is really an immature cereal grain.  Stone ground corn and polenta both have the germ intact and are the closest to whole grain of any ground cornmeal available.  Grits are the coarsest grind of corn which has been treated with lime to remove the germ or hull.

Kamut – This is another variety of buttery-tasting wheat which has made a recent comeback on organic farms.  Often people who are sensitive to wheat can tolerate Kamut.

Millet – Millet is most often used for bird seed in the US, but it’s the leading staple gain in India and other countries.  All millet is hulled but the germ and most of its nutrients remain in tact through the process.

Oats – Oats are never sold with the hull on, so look for “oat groats” which can be used in the same ways you use wheat berries.  Steel cut oats are whole oat groats that have been roughly cut.  Old-fashioned and quick-cooking oats have been steamed a bit and flattened.

Quinoa – Quinoa is a small, light-colored (sometimes found in red, purple and black) round grain, similar in appearance to sesame seeds.  Quinoa is a relative of swiss chard and beets rather than a true grain.  It cooks in about 12 minutes and produces a fluffy dish.  Most quinoa must be rinsed before cooking to remove residue of a plant defense which wards off insects.

Rice – Whole grain rice is usually brown although it can also be black, purple or red.  White rice has had its germ and bran removed and therefore most of its nutrients and fiber removed as well.  Brown rice has a nutty flavor and chewy texture which most people come to prefer.  Whole grain versions of basmati and jasmine rice are becoming more widely available.  Wild rice is not technically rice at all, but the seed of an aquatic grass.  It has a strong flavor and is often consumed in a blend of other grains.

Rye – Rye was long seen as a weed in wheat crops and is unusual among grains because its endosperm contains a high level of fiber.  This means that rye products generally have a lower glycemic index than products made from other grains.

Sorghum – Sorghum is a gluten-free grain and can be cooked like popcorn, cooked into porridge or ground into flour for baked goods.

Spelt – Spelt is a variety of wheat and can be used in place of regular wheat in most recipes.  It is higher in protein than common wheat and some who are sensitive to wheat can tolerate spelt.

Teff – Teff is a nutritious and easy to grow type of millet.  It is largely unknown outside of Ethiopia, India and Australia but is getting more attention for its sweet, molasses-like flavor.  It can be cooked into porridge, added to baked goods or made into teff polenta.  All Teff is whole-grain, because the kernel to too small to mill easily.

Triticale – Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye which grows easily without fertilizer and pesticides.  It has only been commercially grown for 35 years.

Wheat – Wheat is one of the most popular grains and is the basis for baked goods all over the world because of its large amounts of gluten – a stretchy protein that makes it nearly impossible to make an acceptable risen loaf without some wheat in it.  In its whole grain version, it contains plenty of vitamins and amino acids.  You can substitute whole wheat flour for white flour in all baked goods.  There are two main varieties of wheat, durum wheat and bread wheat.  Durum wheat is made into pasta while bread wheat is used for most other applications.

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