The Food Pyramid says eat more whole grains, and General Mills complies with “Made With Whole Grain!” cereal and coordinating advertisements.
Michael Pollan says don’t eat foods that have advertisements.
For more than one reason, he may be right when it comes to whole grains.
If you eat cereal, bread, pasta, or rice, keep reading to see what nutrients you may be missing.
Why Keep Grains Whole?
The whole grain has all the nutrients God put into grains: fiber, protein, healthy fats, and lots of vitamins and minerals. The straight starch in white flour, in the absence of the whole, is quickly turned into simple sugars in your body. This has two effects:
- Spikes your blood sugar
- Is easily turned into fat for storage
In my personal opinion, if God created a food with certain parts, those parts should be eaten together, unless there is a clear reason to do otherwise. In the case of whole grains, however, it may become a question not of “separated or united” but of “how to prepare”.
What is a Whole Grain?
A kernel of grain has three parts: endosperm, germ, and bran. This applies to all grains, like rice, oats, wheat, barley and more.
The endosperm contains:
- A few vitamins
The germ contains:
- B vitamins
- Vitamin E
- Mostly polyunsaturated fats
- Lots of folic acid (important for pregnancy)
- Iron, zinc and other minerals
The bran contains:
- Main source of the grain’s fiber
- Most phytonutrients and minerals
All these parts can be separated. You can buy wheat bran. You can buy wheat germ. (Health food folks like to do this.) You can buy wheat endosperm. It’s called “white flour”. (Processed food companies like to do this.)
Because of its oils, the wheat germ is likely to go rancid quickly. In order to extend the shelf life, as with trans fats, food manufacturers strip off the germ and the bran so that the remaining endosperm, although lacking in nutrition, can sit around for a long time and wait for people to consume it. If only it was worth consuming!
Pros and Cons
Yes, Grains Please! For an in-depth look at the nutritional value of whole grains and the many diseases it may prevent/improve, see the World’s Healthiest Foods report.
No Way, No Grains! Some say grains themselves should be avoided entirely. Here are a few examples (not necessarily the best ones, just some example of what’s out there):
- Wheat negatively impacts mental health
- Whole grains cause, not prevent, constipation
- Nourished Kitchen: 10 Reasons to Go Grain-Free
The Possible Dangers of Eating Whole Grains
The phytates in the bran and the fats in the germ can cause some unique problems for those of us trying to follow recommendations and increase our whole grain consumption.
- Phytates are largely an anti-nutrient, which means they do more to take nutrients from our bodies than share them. When we eat grains with the bran intact, the phytates bind to minerals like calcium, iron, and phosphorus so that our systems can’t make use of them. We’re paying a premium for whole grain products that aren’t delivering on their nutritional profile in reality.
- Rancid oils are damaging to our health, and certain processes cause the oils in the whole grain germ to become oxidized and/or rancid, even if we can’t taste it.
This is why we’re raising our consciousness of grains this week by trying to avoid them at one meal or snack. They’re not the easy health food, even in whole form, that they’re made out to be when the government recommends 6-11 servings a day. Next week I’ll share more on phytates and how to get around that problem, and today I’ll share the most pervasive area we find damaged whole grain fats in the grocery stores.
Why We Should Avoid Whole Grain Breakfast Cereals
First, if regular whole grains really are bound up by phytates, you might as well save your money on the whole grain upgrade, because you’re not getting anything helpful from the whole grains anyway.
Second, almost all breakfast cereals are made by a process called extrusion. My uncle was actually one of the people on the ground floor of designing and implementing the process, and he explained it to me around the campfire last summer. Here’s my best shot at remembering (why didn’t I write it down right away like I thought I did?):
- Whole puffed grains (think rice cereal, corn pops, etc) are prepared for processing, then placed inside a huge vat, where the pressure is increased to a certain point.
- When the pressure is released, the grains literally explode upward – POP! – and puff out to the shape you see in your cereal bowl. Think popcorn, industrial-style. The calculated pressure gives a more uniform shape to the grains.
- Cereal shapes, like Os, stars, and even flakes, are made by a similar process. Even shredded wheat (and Triscuit crackers) is extruded to make the “shreds” that shape.
- The ingredients are mixed together to make a cereal “dough”.
- This “dough” passes down a chamber, much like that of a gun, and as it is heated to “bake” it, it is also extruded through a mold to make the shape. This again is more like a gun firing than anything else, complete with the pow factor and the extreme pressure on the grains.
- When using whole grains, the delicate fats and Vitamin E in the germ are damaged.
The exceptions to this process include some granola type cereals, some Kashi cereals, and Grape Nuts. Grape Nuts, if you’re a science junkie like me and curious, are actually made by baking a 10-lb loaf of dense “bread” at a very low temperature until it is completely solid for a few inches all the way around. That part is smashed up to make the cereal! If you can’t stay away from packaged cereals, Grape Nuts would seem a better choice amongst the poor options.
Here is an article at the Weston A. Price Foundation that cites two unpublished research studies that demonstrate the dangers of extruded grain breakfast cereals. I’m not sure that I buy it all, but it’s an interesting read nonetheless.
The Bottom Line on Whole Grains
- White flour and refined grains have almost no nutritional value, but they will fill you up, and they’re cheap.
- Whole grains have potential for nutritional value, but they may have some drawbacks, and they’re expensive in comparison.
- However, whole grains must trump processed grains if only because they are metabolized more slowly and give at least a bit of protein and fat to help your body deal with the starches.
- Research shows that sourdoughed whole grains have a great deal more available nutrients. I’ll show you how to make your own sourdough in three weeks!
- Research may show that the process of soaking grains can also improve their nutrient profile. The scoop on that, and some recipes, next week.
Hungry? Some soaked grain recipes