February 27, 2009

A Whole Grain Mystery

By Ana Goins-Ramirez-Diaz

I know many of you have heard the messages in the media about the importance of eating whole grains. But, what exactly are whole grains and how much should you eat? Have no fear. I will explain all you need to know about whole grains.

Grains are the edible seeds of plants that are botanically considered grasses. Some grains include wheat, barley, corn, rye, spelt, oats, etc. All grains have three main parts: the bran, endosperm and germ. Bran is the hard, outer coating of the grain. It is a type of fiber that your body cannot digest that helps to regulate your digestive system. It also provides some protein, vitamins and minerals. The white, middle layer of the grain called the endosperm provides few vitamins and mostly carbohydrates and protein. Carbohydrates give the body energy and protein allows the body to grow and repair itself. The smallest part of the grain is called the germ, which provides healthy fat, vitamins and minerals.

Food manufacturers can use all three parts of the grain to make their products. Food products that are only made from the endosperm of a grain, like foods made with white flour, have fewer nutrients in them than products that are made from whole grain wheat flour. In fact, the United States government requires that manufacturers add some vitamins and minerals back into white flour to increase the nutrient content of the food being made. After manufacturers add these vitamins and minerals back into the flour, it is called enriched. This flour will be listed as “enriched wheat flour” on the ingredients list below the food label. Whole grain flour is made from the endosperm, bran and germ of wheat. Since it has all three parts of the wheat grain in it, it naturally contains many more vitamins, minerals and healthy fats.

Reading the ingredient list is an important part of identifying whole grains. Whole grain products will be labeled as “100% whole wheat,” “whole grain,” “brown rice,” “oats or oatmeal” on the ingredients list. For example, it is not enough to look at the color of bread to know whether the bread is made from whole grains. White bread can be made to look brown by adding molasses, a dark brown sugary syrup. This does not make the bread whole wheat because white bread is made with enriched white flour. Sometimes foods that are made with whole grains can be light in color. Does this mean that they were made without whole grains? No, you can tell if whole grains were used by looking at the ingredients list.

There are many grains that are naturally prepared whole. Oats in oatmeal is one example. All three parts of the oat; the endosperm, bran and germ are present in oatmeal. Popcorn is also considered a whole grain because the entire corn kernel is popped. Wild rice, quinoa, cornmeal, spelt, bulgur or cracked wheat, amaranth, kasha, etc. are all types of whole grains that are usually unprocessed and sold in their whole grain form.

Whole grains are a very important part of our diet. The Food Pyramid recommends that adults and children eat 6 ounces of grains every day. At least 3 ounces of the recommended 6 ounces of grains should come from whole grains. Now that you know how much you should be eating, what does 1 ounce of grains look like? Health professionals realize that you are not going to carry a scale with you everywhere you go to measure out your portions. So, they came up with basic guidelines to help you identify 1 ounce of grains.

It may seem that 1 cup of all grains is equal to the 1 ounce serving recommended by the Food Pyramid. This is not the case. 1 ounce equivalents of rice, pasta, oatmeal, and bulgur are only ½ cup.

Let’s also not forget that 3 cups of popped popcorn is equal to 1 ounce of grains. You can use the chart below as a quick and easy reference to determine 1 ounce serving equivalents.

Now that you know what whole grains are, explore and be adventurous! Try some new types of grains you have never tried before. You can visit The Whole Grains Council at http://www.wholegrainscouncil.org/recipes/ for recipes to make delicious whole grain dishes.

This material was funded by USDA’s Food Stamp Program through the California Department of Public Health’s Network for a Healthy California. These institutions are equal opportunity providers and employers. The Food Stamp Program provides nutrition assistance to people with low income. It can help buy nutritious foods for a better diet. For information on the Food Stamp Program, call 1-888-328-3483. (Contract #: 06-55122)

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