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Whole Grains Versus Hype: Learn the Difference

By H.K. Jones

Whole grain is the new "it" girl in the supermarket. The aisles are teeming with whole grain claims on breads, cereals, pasta...even cookies (geesh). Why the big focus on whole grains? Well, first the good news: Researchers have found that eating whole grains lowers your risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and constipation, making it a great and healthy source of the complex carbohydrates your body needs to power itself through the day.

Now for the bad news: Loose labeling regulations allow unscrupulous food companies to make up their own whole-grain claims, making it difficult for all but the most educated health-conscious consumers to separate the whole grain from the refined chaff. So what's a guy to do? Educate yourself! We'll get you started with this primer on how to find the real whole grains hiding in your local market.

Whole Grain 101
Grains (also called cereals) are simply the seeds of plants. All types of grains are good sources of complex carbohydrates, but grains that haven't been refined—aka whole grains—are nutritious powerhouses. Whole grains are choc full of good-for-you fiber, vitamins, and minerals, because whole grains contain all parts of the grain including the bran, germ, and endosperm—all of which contain valuable nutrients. Endo what? The basic definitions:

  1. Bran forms the outer layer of the seed and is a rich source of niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and zinc. The bran also contains most of the seed's fiber.
  2. Germ is the part from which a new plant sprouts, and is a concentrated source of niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin E, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and zinc, as well as some protein and fat.
  3. Endosperm, or the kernel, makes up the bulk of the seed, and contains most of the grain's protein and carbohydrates, as well as small amounts of vitamins and minerals.
Refined grains, such as white rice or white flour, have both the bran and germ removed from the grain. And although many manufacturers add the vitamins and minerals back into refined grains after the milling process, they still don't have as near as many nutrients as whole grains do, and they don't provide nearly as much fiber.

The bottom line? Choose whole-grains over refined grains as often as possible.

The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Not the Refined Truth
To get the most whole-grain bang for your buck, look for bread, cereal, crackers, and so on that are 100 percent whole grain—meaning no refined flour. Keep in mind that packages won't identify flours as refined. If the label does not say clearly say "100 Percent," check the ingredient list for refined culprits such as white flour (usually listed as bleached or unbleached enriched wheat flour), semolina or durum flour, and rice flour.

Don't be fooled by packages that brag about their "excellent" or "good source of" whole grains. The same goes for "multi-grain," "whole-grain blend," and "made with whole grain." These foods often contain far more refined grain than whole grain. So look to see whether the predominant or first ingredient listed is a whole grain.

Other 100-percent whole grains you can find in most stores—and definitely at health food stores and farmers markets—include brown rice, bulgur wheat, oatmeal, barley (including pearled barley), buckwheat, cracked wheat, quinoa, and amaranth.

Avoid These Ingredients
Bleached or unbleached enriched wheat flour
Wheat flour
Semolina or durum flour
Rice flour
White rice

Look for These Ingredients
Whole wheat
Whole rye
Brown rice
Bulgur wheat
Cracked wheat

About H.K. Jones: H. K. Jones is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition professional based in Washington, D.C.