Cracking the Whole Grain

Everywhere you go you hear whole grain this, whole wheat that. Everywhere you shop you see label claims of whole grain goodness. We all know whole grain is healthier than its white refined counterpart, but do you actually know what whole grain means? I get asked this question a whole lot.

Whole grain is literally a whole, or entire grain. That means it has 3 parts: bran (outer layer), endosperm (inner layer) and germ layer.

File:Wheat-kernel nutrition.svg

Bran: Highest concentration of fiber and iron, a good source of protein and B vitamins.

Germ: Highest concentration of protein and poly-unsaturated fat, good source of fiber, iron, B vitamins, omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.

Endosperm: Highest concentration of carbs, least amount of protein, iron, fiber, no B vitamins or fat = least nutritious part of the grain.

If you can’t guess where this is heading, refined white grains, like white bread and white flour, strip off the germ and bran layers removing the protein, fiber, iron, B vitamins and fat and leaving the endosperm, aka the carbs. That is why white bread  has very little nutritional bang for its buck. The fat and protein found in bran and germ can readily spoil, which is why companies thought to strip them away lengthening bread’s shelf life.

White bread isn’t “bad” for you in the sense that it has harmful ingredients. Rather, it is mainly carb with little vitamins and nutrients so it doesn’t have any benefits, making it essentially empty calories. Where as the protein, fiber, vitamins, iron and polyunsaturated fats in whole grains help lower cholesterol, ease bowels, increase satiety and can even have protective effects against certain cancers. 

Now for the grain dictionary:

Enriched – Returning nutrients that were lost when the whole grain-ness was stripped away. The good ‘ole government mandates “enriched” breads and wheats to return the following vitamins/minerals: Vitamin B1 (thiamin), Vitamin B2 (riboflavin), Vitamin B3 (niacin), folic acid, and iron. Many companies have been adding back the fiber, though it’s not mandatory.

Unbleached / bleached – Categorizes if the flour has been subjected to a whitening process or not. Bleached flour goes through more processing and chemicals, so go for non-bleached flour. Whole grains are not bleached.

Multi-grain – Several types of grains were used in the product, like a mix of wheat and oats. It does NOT mean it’s whole grain unless the wheat specifically listed as 100% whole wheat on ingredient list.

Organic – Describes certain standards used to grow grain (type fertilizer, etc), but does NOT refer to how the grain was processed. You can have organic white bread.

Sprouted- Right now that is no regulated definition and it can vary based on company. A type of natural and raw processing that uses the enzymes of the grain to germinate, or sprout. Some studies show sprouting allows our bodies to better absorb some nutrients like the iron and B. It can only be considered whole wheat if the bran, endosperm and germ layer are all left intact, and in that case the label usually indicated “whole grain sprouted.”

Examples of whole grains: WHOLE wheat bread, WHOLE wheat flour, quinoa, oatmeal, brown rice, wild rice, bulgar, whole grain barley, popcorn, millet, whole grain buckwheat. All of the above are awesome. Next time you head to the aisles buy one that you’ve never tried before. I have a soft spot for homemade popcorn.

Reading label is key (C’mon peeps). Unless the ingredient list has 100% whole wheat flour, it’s not all whole wheat. Companies are so sneaky. Even “made with whole wheat” doesn’t mean  100% whole wheat. Even “whole grain” listed on the front doesn’t mean the whole product is made of whole grains without the “100% whole grain” marker.Other tricky words that do NOT mean whole grain: Durum, semolina, refined, stone ground, wheat berries, multigrain, cracked wheat, bran.