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Reaping the Benefits of Whole Grains

By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD

Will the real whole grain please stand up? Confusion exists over what constitutes a 'whole grain' as well as the perception that whole grains don't taste good.

Scan the bread, cereal or snack aisle and virtually every package touts some kind of nutritional whole-grain goodness. But not all of them are whole grain or necessarily good for your health.

We're surrounded by terms like multigrain, 100% wheat, cracked wheat, organic, pumpernickel, bran, and stone ground. These all sound like healthy whole grains, but none of these descriptions actually indicate whole grain.

Know your whole grains

A whole grain contains all edible parts of the grain, including the bran, germ, and endosperm. The whole grain may be used intact or recombined as long as all components are present in natural proportions. To recognize whole grains, keep this list handy when you go to the grocery store and choose any of the following grains:

  • Whole-grain corn
  • Popcorn
  • Whole rye
  • Wild rice
  • Triticale
  • Millet
  • Sorghum
  • Farro
  • Whole oats/oatmeal
  • Brown rice
  • Whole-grain barley
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur (cracked wheat)
  • Quinoa
  • Whole Wheat

Whole grains are not necessarily brown or multigrain or only found in adult cereals. They exist throughout the food supply, including processed foods.

New and improved whole grains

Experiment with whole grain nutrition by enjoying many of the newly reformulated whole grain products that use lighter whole processing techniques to make them look and taste more like white flour. Kids are more likely to eat white whole wheat bread or hamburger buns made with ultra white whole grain flour.

Ever since the 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommended more whole grains, there has been an explosion of whole grain options in the grocery store. Whole grains are growing at a remarkable rate as consumers are starting to understand how to identify them and the importance of enjoying a diet rich in whole grains.

Whole grain confusion

Don't be misled by manufacturer's claims on the front of packages. Color, fiber, or descriptive names on the package do not necessarily imply whole-grain goodness. Some manufacturers strip the outer layer of bran off the whole kernel of wheat, use refined wheat flour, add in molasses to color it brown, and call it 100% wheat bread. That's true, but it is not a whole grain.

The only way to really know if a whole grain is indeed "whole" is to check the ingredient list for the word "whole" preceding the grain and recognize the grains listed above as whole grains. Ideally, the whole grain will be the first ingredient in the list, indicating that the product contains more whole grain than any other ingredient.

And avoid products that say "refined" whole wheat. Again, that's not a true whole grain and much of the health benefit has been stripped out by processing.

One simple way to find whole grains is to look for the FDA-approved health claim that reads, "In a low fat diet, whole grain foods may reduce the risk of heart disease and some forms of cancers." This is found on whole-grain products that contain at least 51% whole-grain flour (by weight) and are low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.

Another easy way to find whole grain products is to look for the whole grain stamp which indicates at least a good serving.

How much is enough?

The amount of grains you need is based on your age, sex, and physical activity level. Most adults need six servings of grains each day and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommends at least half come from whole grains – more is better. Yet only about 10 percent of Americans consume the recommended amount.

You can determine how much you need by consulting choosemyplate.govOpens a new window.

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