Well, there is much more to the story, and I will tell that story here. At the risk of losing all credibility, I will venture to say that processed grains are good. Yes, I know that sounds a bit blasphemous, but you can’t go away now. Please, I beg of you, don’t leave yet. Hear me out.
A grain is…
It all starts with the little grain. What is a grain anyway? If you ask Merriam-Webster they will tell you that it is “a seed or fruit of a cereal grass.”1 Great. We have a definition. But that didn’t really clarify anything, did it? Hmmm, to simplify it further, a grain is a plant’s seed that we eat. Some examples are wheat, rice, corn, rye, barley, sorghum, millet, amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat. Ok, now it is clear-er what a grain is, but what is a whole grain?
What is a whole grain?
To talk about a whole grain, you must first understand the not so mystifying anatomy of a grain. Refer to the picture on the right as I continue.
The outermost portion is called the bran. The bran layer contains fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins.2 Then you have the germ that contains fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals.2 And finally you have the endosperm—which is what makes up regular flour—that contains carbohydrate, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
A “whole grain” is a grain that still has all of its parts, in the original proportions that you find in nature. A whole grain can be processed in different ways, and still remain a whole grain. Whole, cracked, split, flaked, and ground are some words that manufacturers use to describe this processing.
Processing is good!
Processing grains can make them easier to cook—think whole oat groats versus rolled oats. It can make them easier to eat and digest. And it allows you to use them in more ways—could you imagine making a pie crust out of whole wheat berries instead of flour? Go ahead and give it a try, then get back to me on that.
“Process” vs. “Refine”
Processing is good, so why does it have such a bad reputation? When people hear the word “processing” they are probably thinking of what is actually referred to as refining. This is when the whole grain is broken up and the bran and germ portions are stripped away.3 The result is your run-of- the-mill (pun intended) flour. You lose some important nutrients like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants when this happens.
Identifying whole grains
So how do you know if a product contains whole grain? Can’t you tell by looking at the fiber on the label? No. Fiber can be added to products, so high fiber does not equal whole grain. And keep in mind that fiber from natural sources, such as a whole grain, is probably better for you than a boat-load of added isolated (or “free-standing” ) fiber ingredients. Remember, whole grains offer vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants along with their fiber.
To identify whole grains look carefully for one of these things:
Look at the ingredients list on the package. If you see any of these terms listed, you know that the listed grain is whole grain: Whole grain grain name, whole wheat, whole grain name, stone-ground whole grain name, brown rice, oats, oatmeal (including instant oatmeal), wheat berries.
Manufacturers may print on the package “100% whole grain name” or the number of grams of whole grains that the product contains.
A package may contain one of these Whole Grain Stamp labels from the Whole Grains Council, indicating how much whole grain is in the product. Read these stamps carefully to find out how much whole grain is in each serving. As you see, there is more than one version of this label, and each version tells you something different!
You can still have a whole grain, even after it has been processed, as long as it has the bran, germ, and endosperm still present in the original proportions. Processing is a good thing. Processing is not the same as refining. Whole grains have more to offer than fiber. And look for whole grains in the product in addition to fiber on the label when purchasing whole grain products. Did you get all that?
—Lynette Iseli, Dietetic Intern
Thanks to the Moore Family Center at OSU for their cooperation and contribution.
Read more at: blogs.oregonstate.edu/moore/
1. Grain | Definition | Merriam-Webster
2. Whole Grains Council: Whole Grains at Every Meal
3. McGee H. On food and cooking: the science and lore of the kitchen. New York, NY: Scribner; 2004.