Grains are plentiful, and eating a diversity of grains will ensure that you receive a healthy serving of nutrients. Beware when shopping because not all grains provide nutritional value. Some grains are whole while others are processed. Processing grains may improve shelf life, but it also removes nutrients too.
To understand the differences among grains, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of whole grains. A whole grain is composed of three layers: bran (outer), endosperm (middle), and germ (inner) layers. The bran layer is packed with B vitamins and minerals as well as fiber and proteins. The middle layer (endosperm) is a bit starchy because it contains lots of carbohydrates, and it consists of protein. The germ layer has healthy unsaturated fats and proteins. When food manufacturers process grains, all of the layers are removed except the starchy middle layer. Removing the nutrient-rich outer and inner layers produces a minimally nutritious grain. Whole grains are nutritious in their natural form, so it makes sense to buy whole grains that contain 100% of its original kernel (the bran, endosperm, and germ layers). How do you know if you’re buying nutritious whole grains? Turn your attention to the terms on the front label of food packages:
Whole grains are nutrient-dense foods that are packed with vitamins and minerals. These grains contain a lot of fiber, which helps promote satiety. If whole grains appears on your food package, it means that the kernel’s three layers are intact.
Refined grains are whole grains that have undergone a milling process. The milling process removes the bran and germ layers to improve the texture and extends the shelf life of the product. After the refining process, the grain becomes a carb-rich product. Some examples of refined grains include white bread, white flour, white rice as well as many desserts and pastries.
Enriched grains are grains in which nutrients that were lost during the refining process are added back into the grains. The final product contains more carbs and very little fiber.
Fortification is the process of incorporating vitamins and minerals that are not naturally occurring in foods. Folic acid, for example, is added in cereals and other foods. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, a naturally occurring vitamin, found in many grains, fruits, and vegetables. Fortifying food with folic acid prevents neural tube defects.
Choosing Healthy Grains
When shopping for whole grains, flip the food package over. The back label has important clues regarding the quality of the grain. Look for the word whole on the back label. It should be a part of the first ingredient (e.g., whole wheat, whole rye). Whole grain imposters assume various names: multigrain, cracked wheat, bran, stone-ground, or seven-grain. These types of grains are refined and do not contain the full nutritional value of whole grains.
Refined grains are usually white (e.g., white bread); however, some manufacturers may choose to change the color of their processed grains so that they appear brown. Again, check out the first ingredient on the back of the label. Don’t stop there: evaluate other things like sugar and sodium content. Avoid products with ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, sucrose, and molasses. Too much sugar is an easy way to pack on extra calories. Packaged foods tend to sneak in a lot of salt. The recommended daily intake of sodium for Americans is 2,300 mg or less.
Incorporating whole grains into your diet is easy. A panoply of whole grains is readily available. You don’t have to worry about limiting your options to brown rice and whole grain cereals. Here are some whole grains to consider:
- Steel-cut oats
Whole grains contain various nutrients as well as fiber, which have been shown to prevent disease and improve health. Studies show that whole grains protect against cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. They also reduce cholesterol and blood pressure too.