Do you remember those old pictures of the food pyramid? At the base were foods like bread, cereal, rice, and pasta. As you probably know, the source of all these products is grain. Grains were placed at the bottom of the pyramid to illustrate their foundational importance to human nutrition. Although the USDA replaced the food pyramid in 2011, grains have held their place as the world’s most important food group. In fact, grains alone comprise about half of the food consumed worldwide.
When we talk about grains, we are generally referring to cereal grasses. (Although there are also a few ‘pseudo-cereals’ that are commonly called grains as well.) These grasses produce a grain, or ‘fruit’, which is harvested and then eaten in a variety of ways. Nutritionally, grains provide us with energy in the form of carbohydrates. They are also full of fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, plant enzymes, hormones, and hundreds of other phytochemicals.
What’s a Whole Grain?
When it’s picked, a grain consists of three parts:
Bran: is the protective covering that surrounds the grain. It is rich in insoluble fiber, B vitamins, proteins, fats, and minerals. The first step in refining a grain is to remove the bran. Consequently, this process also removes the germ.
Endosperm: is the major part of a grain. It is an excellent source of carbohydrates and soluble fiber. White flour and white rice are 100% endosperm.
Germ: is a tiny, nutrient rich part of a grain. It contains vitamins A, B, and E as well as enzymes, fat, protein, and antioxidants. The germ is the part of the grain that will eventually sprout to produce a new plant.
A grain or grain product that retains all three of its parts after processing is called a ‘whole grain’. ‘Refined grains’ are essentially just the endosperm; everything else gets polished away. Grains are often refined to make them easier to chew, digest, and store. White rice, for example, cooks much faster than brown. And white flour is prized for its use in soft, fluffy breads.
However, there is a high price to pay for eating these refined grains. They contain almost no fiber and their vitamin and mineral counts are greatly diminished. The consumption of refined grains is a leading cause for all of the lifestyle diseases we see in Western societies.
Today, health experts everywhere recognize the importance of consuming whole grains. As a consequence, companies have begun labeling their products and introducing more product lines containing whole grains. Also, many products have begun displaying the Whole Grain Stamp, which allows consumers to quickly identify products containing whole grains.
When you are looking at nutrition labels, make double sure you see the word ‘whole’ before barley, rye, triticale, wheat, or maize (corn). Also, be sure that your rice is brown, black, or any color other than white! The other grains on our list are rarely, if ever, sold in a refined form. So don’t worry if you don’t see the words ‘whole oats’—unless your product is hyper-processed, you’re sure to be getting the whole grain.
Sprouted Grains: What and Why?
You may have seen something new in the stores during the last few years. Sprouted grain—most commonly available in the form of sprouted bread—is reported to be healthier than regular grain. Sprouting happens when the germ begins to grow. As it grows, it feeds off of the endosperm and thus lowers the starch content of the grain. This results in a grain that has a greater percentage of protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Studies have shown that sprouted grains have higher levels of many nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin C, folic acid, fiber, and even amino acids such as lysine. Other studies suggest that sprouting grain increases the ‘bioavailibility’ of certain minerals, such as iron and zinc. Essentially, this means that these minerals are easier for our bodies to absorb. By eating sprouted grains, we can take advantage of these improved nutrients.
It’s also reported that some people who are gluten-sensitive are able to better tolerate sprouted grains. Enzymes that occur during the sprouting process may help break gluten down into smaller components that are easier to digest. Sprouted grains also have a low glycemic index and will not spike your blood sugar levels.
You may think it obvious, but sprouted grains are always whole grains. This is because a refined grain will not sprout. All the components of a grain are necessary for sprouting! Many sprouted breads contain no preservatives and thus must be refrigerated or frozen. Otherwise, they are used the same as the bread you’ve grown up eating.
The Moral of the Story:
So besides whole grains and sprouted grains, what else is there to know? Well, if you take anything else away from this article it should be this: Vary the grains you consume. This advice actually extends to all types of food. No food is perfect—even a whole grain. Besides having different concentrations of vitamins and minerals, there are essential amino acids present in some grains, which are lacking in another. To ensure good nutrition, we need to vary the grains we consume.
Sadly, variance is lacking in today’s world. According to the UN, three crops alone—maize (corn), rice, and wheat—constituted 89 percent of the worldwide grain production. You could say our culture has, um, ingrained us to consume only a select few products. Besides missing out nutritionally, we are missing out on taste, color, and texture. It’s time to look beyond your bowl of rice, past your wheat bread and corn muffins, towards something truly tantalizing!
In the next two articles, we will be exploring the different types of grain in depth. First, (in Part 2) we will cover the grains containing gluten. Second, (in Part 3) we will focus on the gluten-free grains. There’s sure to be a fact or two you didn’t know before. Hopefully, you will come out of it more knowledgeable and pumped to try some new foods. Enjoy!