However, shopping for whole grains can be confusing and the way manufacturers define whole grain products is sometimes misleading. The month of September has been designated Whole Grains month by the Whole Grain Council (WGC) and clearing the air on the definition of whole grains and what qualifies as a whole grain is part of their mission to increase the awareness of whole grains and their associated health benefits.
The official definitions of whole grains, approved and endorsed by the Whole Grains Council states:
Whole grains or foods made from them contain all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed.
This definition means that 100 percent of the original kernel – all of the bran, germ, and endosperm – must be present to qualify as a whole grain.
A whole grain contains three layers. The outer layer or bran holds up to 80 percent of the grain's total mineral value, including B vitamins and most of the fiber.
The middle layer or endosperm contains protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.
The small inner core or germ contains concentrated amounts of B vitamins, vitamin E, protein, trace minerals, good unsaturated fats, antioxidants and phytonutrients.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines as defined by the USDA recommend eating three to five servings or more of whole grains every day. A serving is defined as one of the following made up of whole grain ingredients: 1/2 cup cooked rice, bulgur, pasta, or cooked cereal; 1 ounce dry pasta, rice or other dry grain, 1 slice bread, 1 small muffin, 1 cup ready-to-eat cereal flakes.
"Whole grains, as well as foods made from them, consist of the entire grain seed, usually called the kernel. The kernel is made of three components – the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. If the kernel has been cracked, crushed, or flaked, then it must retain nearly the same relative proportions of bran, germ, and endosperm as the original grain to be called whole grain.”
“It is also recommended that we limit consumption of foods that contain refined grains, especially refined grain foods that contain solid fats, added sugars, and sodium . . . and to increase whole-grain intake by replacing refined grains with whole grains."
"Many grain foods contain both whole grains and refined grains. These foods also can help people meet the whole grain recommendation, especially if a considerable proportion of the grain ingredients is whole grains. For example, foods with at least 51 percent of the total weight as whole-grain ingredients contain a substantial amount of whole grains. Another example is foods with at least 8 grams of whole grains per ounce-equivalent."
Gluten Free Whole Grains
Gluten-intolerant people can eat whole grains and there are a number of gluten-free grain choices available.
Gluten is found in wheat and wheat varieties such as spelt, kamut, farro, durum and semolina. It is also found in barley, rye and triticale.
Some Gluten free whole grains include amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa, rice, sorghum, teff and wild rice. Oats are naturally gluten free but are frequently contaminated with wheat during growing or processing. Several companies including Bob's Red Mill, Cream Hill Estates, GF Harvest, Avena Foods, Legacy Valley and Gifts of Nature offer pure, uncontaminated oats.
For more information on foods that are acceptable for the gluten-free diet, see the Quick Start Diet Guide at Gluten.net that is jointly developed by the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America and the Celiac Disease Foundation.
Easy Ways to Enjoy Whole Grains
Substitute half the white flour with whole wheat flour in your regular recipes for cookies, muffins, quick breads and pancakes.
Replace one third of the flour in a recipe with quick oats or old-fashioned oats.
Add half a cup of cooked bulgur, wild rice, or barley to bread stuffing.
Add half a cup of cooked wheat or rye berries, wild rice, brown rice, sorghum or barley to your favorite canned or home-made soup.
Use whole corn meal for corn cakes, corn breads and corn muffins.
Add three-quarters of a cup of uncooked oats for each pound of ground beef or turkey when you make meatballs, burgers or meatloaf.
Stir a handful of rolled oats in your yogurt, for quick crunch with no cooking necessary.
Make pilafs and other rice-like dishes with whole grains such as barley, brown rice, bulgur, millet, quinoa or sorghum.
Enjoy whole grain salads like tabbouleh.
Buy whole grain pasta, or one of the blends that's part whole-grain, part white.
Try whole grain breads.
Look for cereals made with grains like kamut, kasha (buckwheat) or spelt.
Approved Whole Grains
Amaranth kernels are tiny and when cooked resemble brown caviar and have a peppery flavor. An ancient Aztec grain, amaranth is making a comeback.
Amaranth has no gluten, so it must be mixed with wheat to make leavened breads. It is popular in cereals, breads, muffins, crackers and pancakes.
Health Note: It has a higher level of protein, 13 to 14 percent, compared to most other grains.
Shopping Tip: When you see amaranth on an ingredient list, it is almost invariably whole amaranth.
Barley is one of the oldest cultivated grains and is the world's fourth most important cereal crop after wheat, rice, and corn.
It has a tough, inedible hull, which is difficult to remove without losing some of the bran. Hulled barley, retains more of the whole-grain nutrients and takes about an hour to cook. Pearled barley is not technically a whole grain because small amounts of the bran are missing but it's still full of fiber and healthier than fully-refined grains.
Barley is highest in fiber of all the whole grains, containing 17 percent. By comparison, wheat is 12 percent, corn is seven percent, oats are ten percent and brown rice 3.5 percent.
In most grains the fiber is concentrated in the outer bran layer while barley's fiber is found throughout the whole grain. It is also high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Barley contains higher levels of protein than many other grains and is lower in soluble carbohydrates which help in weight loss.
Health Note: Studies show strong support for barley's role in protecting heart health and the FDA has allowed barley foods to claim they reduce the risk of coronary artery disease. It has been shown to reduce blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol, help control blood sugar, weight and waist circumference.
Shopping Tip: Look for whole barley, hulled barley or hull-less barley.
Buckwheat contains four grams of fiber and five grams protein per 1/4 cup. It contains high levels of an antioxidant called rutin that has been shown to improve circulation and prevents LDL cholesterol from blocking blood vessels. It is a good source of fiber that is also rich in phosphorus and niacin.
Shopping Tip: When you see buckwheat on an ingredient list, it is almost always whole buckwheat.
Corn is sometimes dismissed as a nutrient-poor starch and second-rate vegetable and grain, but is lately is being reassessed as a healthy food. The corn category also includes fresh corn on the cob, popcorn, cornmeal and polenta.
Health Note: Recent studies have shown that corn has the highest level of antioxidants of any grain or vegetable. It also offers 10 times more vitamin A than other grains.
Shopping Tip: Whole grain corn includes popcorn, cornmeal, corn flour, fresh corn and polenta.
Millet, the smallest of all grains and the leading grain in India, has a mild flavor and is often mixed with other grains or toasted to bring out the full extent of its delicate flavor. It is tiny and can be white, gray, yellow or red.
It is a wheat-free grain that contains many nutrients including vitamin B1, magnesium and iron.
Because it is small it cooks up quickly and adds flavor, texture and nutrients to bread and can be eaten like rice.
Health Note: Although it is low in fiber it has 4 grams of protein per 1/4 cup.
Shopping Tip: When you see millet on an ingredient list, it is whole millet.
Most oats are steamed and flattened to produce old-fashioned, regular, quick or instant oats. The more oats are flattened and steamed, the quicker they cook and the softer they become. If you prefer a chewier, nuttier texture, consider steel-cut oats, also sometimes called Irish or Scottish oats. Steel-cut oats consist of the entire oat kernel, sliced once or twice into smaller pieces to help water penetrate and cook the grain.
Health Note: Oats are one of the best sources of soluble fiber. Scientific studies have concluded that like barley, oats contain a special kind of fiber called beta-glucan found to be especially effective in lowering cholesterol. Recent research indicates oats also have a unique antioxidant that helps protect blood vessels from the damaging effects of LDL cholesterol.
Shopping Tip: When you see oats, oatmeal or oat groats on an ingredient list, they are almost always whole oats.
Quinoa is a small, light-colored round grain, similar in appearance to sesame seeds. But quinoa is also available in other colors including red, purple and black. Commercially, quinoa is now appearing in cereal flakes and other processed foods. Most quinoa must be rinsed before cooking, to remove the bitter residue of saponins, a plant-defense that wards off insects.
Health Note: The abundant protein in quinoa is complete protein, which means that it contains all the essential amino acids our bodies can't make on their own.
Shopping Tip: When you see quinoa on an ingredient list, it is almost always whole quinoa. Red and black quinoa have more nutrients than white quinoa.
White rice is refined, with the germ and bran removed. Whole-grain rice, usually brown, is the whole rice kernel. It can also be black, purple or red.
Converted rice is parboiled before refining, a process which drives some of the B vitamins into the endosperm so that they are not lost when the bran is removed. As a result, converted rice is healthier than regular white rice, but still is lacking many nutrients found in brown rice. Brown rice is lower in fiber than most other whole grains, but rich in many nutrients.
Health Note: Brown rice is higher in fiber, minerals and vitamins than white rice. In addition, brown rice is high in selenium.
Shopping Tip: The term brown rice is always whole grain, as are most other colored rices, such as black rice or red rice.
Health Tip: Rye is particularly high in insoluble fiber, which is known to keep your bowels moving and may have a detoxifying effect. This type of fiber in rye promotes a rapid feeling of fullness, making rye foods a good choice for people trying to lose weight.
Health Note: The type of fiber in rye promotes a rapid feeling of fullness, making rye foods a good choice for people trying to lose weight.
Shopping Tip: Look for whole rye or rye berries in the ingredient list. Just because something is labeled rye bread doesn't guarantee its whole grain.
Worldwide, about 50 percent of sorghum goes to human consumption, but in the U.S., most of the crop is fed to animals or used for biodegradable packing materials.
It can be eaten like popcorn, cooked into porridge, ground into flour for baked goods, or even brewed into beer. It is naturally gluten free and can be substituted for wheat flour in a variety of baked goods. Its neutral, sometimes sweet, flavor and light color make it easily adaptable to a variety of dishes.
Sorghum improves the texture of recipes and digests more slowly with a lower glycemic index, so it sticks with you a bit longer than other flours or flour substitutes.
When substituting sorghum into your existing recipes can take some practice so start with recipes that use small amounts of wheat flour, such as brownies or pancakes. Because sorghum flour does not contain gluten, bakers often incorporate a binder such as xanthan gum or cornstarch to add stretch to the dough. For instance, you could add 1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum per cup of sorghum flour for cookies and cakes, and 1 teaspoon per cup for breads.
Health Note: Some specialty sorghums are high in antioxidants and the wax surrounding the sorghum grain contains a compound that may have an impact on cardiac health and have cholesterol-lowering properties comparable to that of statins.
Shopping Tip: When you see sorghum on an ingredient list, it is most likely whole sorghum.
Teff grains are minute – just 1/150 the size of wheat kernels and come in red, brown and white. It is a type of millet that is gaining attention for its sweet, molasses-like flavor and versatility. It can be cooked as porridge, added to baked goods, or even made into teff polenta.
Health Note: Teff has three times the calcium and twice the iron of other grains.
Shopping Tip: All varieties of teff are whole-grain, because the kernel is simply too small to mill easily.
Shopping Tip: When you see triticale on an ingredient list, it is almost invariably whole triticale.
Wild rice is not technically rice, but the seed of an aquatic grass originally grown by indigenous tribes around the Great Lakes. The strong flavor and high price of wild rice mean that it is most often consumed in a blend with other rice or grains.
Health Note: Wild rice has twice the protein and fiber of brown rice, but less iron and calcium.
Shopping Tip: When you see wild rice on an ingredient list, it is almost invariably whole wild rice.
Freekeh is being called the hot new ancient grain which in Arabic means to rub. The process starts by picking young green grains, most commonly wheat, then parching, roasting and rubbing off the grain. Because the grains are harvested while young, they retain the maximum nutritional value, flavor and texture.
Sometimes referred to as the smoky cousin of bulgur wheat, freekeh is nutty and chewy, making it a favorful addition to pilafs, soups and stews.
This grain has not yet made it onto the USDA nutrient database, but an Australian-based company has analyzed its values and determined the grain to be high in protein and fiber, and low on the glycemic index.
Health Note: Freekeh is said to have four times the amount of fiber as rice, higher levels of protein than most grains and is a rich source of calcium, potassium, iron and zinc.
Shopping Tip: Freekeh is available in the bulk department at FRESH by Brookshire's.
Bread wheat is described as hard or soft according to its protein content. Hard wheat has more protein, including more gluten, and is used for bread, while soft wheat creates cake flour with lower protein and less gluten.
There are many varieties of wheat that fit into the whole grain category including spelt, farro/emmer, bulgur, kamut, and wheat berries or grano.
Health Note: Wheat has a complex nutrient profile that includes protein, carbohydrate and vitamins and minerals. It is a good source of dietary fiber and is rich in manganese and copper.
Shopping Tip: When you're shopping for wheat, make sure to look for the term whole wheat. Just plain wheat legally refers to refined wheat.
VARIETIES OF WHEAT
Bulgur is a wheat kernel that is boiled, dried, cracked and then sorted by size. Because it has been precooked and dried, it only needs to be cooked about 10 minutes to be ready to eat. It is best known as the main ingredient in tabbouleh – a popular Middle Eastern salad.
Health Note: Bulgur has more fiber than quinoa, oats, millet, buckwheat or corn.
Shopping Tip: All bulgur is defined as a whole grain.
Spelt an ancient cousin to modern wheat and was one of the first grains to be grown by early farmers.
Health Note: Spelt is higher in protein than common wheat. There are anecdotal reports that some people sensitive to wheat can tolerate spelt, but no reliable medical studies have addressed that issue.
Shopping Tip: Like other varieties of wheat, spelt can be found in both whole and refined form so look for the words whole spelt.
Farro/Emmer, another ancient strain of wheat, was the standard daily ration of the Roman legions but was gradually abandoned in favor of durum wheat, which is easier to hull.
Shopping Tip: Avoid labels that say pearled when you're looking for whole-grain farro, and look for the words whole farro.
Grano/Wheat Berries: Grano is the Italian word for grain and predates pasta. Durum wheat kernels or wheat berries are lightly polished and become grano.
They typically require soaking and then cooking for an hour. Some grano is minimally processed and removes the thick outer casing of the grain and a small amount of bran. This cuts the cooking time by thirty minutes. It makes a side dish full of nutty flavor and al dente texture.
Because it is missing some of its bran, grano is not technically a whole grain, but is still a healthier choice than a totally-refined grain.
Health Note: Grano has a protein content of 15 percent or better and yields 6 grams of fiber and protein per 1/4 cup.
Kamut, the ancient Egyptian word for wheat, is an heirloom variety of wheat. It was once ignored but is now recognized for its high level of protein and vitamin E and rich, buttery flavor.
Shopping Tip: Look for the words whole Kamut.