Understanding grains (corn, wheat, multi-grain, etc.)

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Today I am republishing a post I wrote on “understanding grains” last year. I think this is a great refresher for those who read it last summer and also a good reference guide for those who are newer to the site. Finding whole grains in the store can often-times be tricky because of all the misleading labels on packaging these days. Just be sure to remember – when it comes to any type of packaged food always ignore what it says on the front and only read the ingredients!

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Understanding Grains

By 100 Days of Real Food, on July 29th, 2010

First and foremost I must get something off my chest. Just because a box of something at the grocery store or even a bagel at the bakery says “multi-grain” does not mean it is a healthy alternative. Multi-grain simply means the food is made with more than one grain and has absolutely nothing to do with whether any of those grains are actually the whole grain or not, which is what is really important.

Awhile back I did an in-depth post on understanding whole-wheat and what should be in your sandwich bread. What you know about wheat can easily be applied to many other grains as well. In summary, the wheat berry has three parts (the germ, bran, and endosperm) and whole-wheat flour includes all three of these parts. When highly processed (a.k.a. refined) white flour is made the nutritious bran and germ are removed and only the endosperm is left, which is basically high in calories and low in nutrients. I don’t know about you, but this reminds me a little too much of sugar. This “white” flour is still made from the “wheat” plant, but it is considered to be highly processed. Here are a few other popular grains and how this same thought process can be applied…

  • Corn

I know corn easily gets a bad rap because it is so highly subsidized by the government and included in countless additives that you will find in most highly processed foods, but straight-up whole corn by itself is actually a decent food. Not only is corn considered to be a whole-grain, but it is also sometimes considered to be a vegetable (that according to the Whole Grains Council “has the highest level of antioxidants of any grain or vegetable.”). Just like wheat though, you want to make sure you only buy the most nutritious whole-grain corn products that include all the parts of the kernel (the germ, bran, and endosperm). Here’s what to look for:

  • Whole Grain = Whole grain corn, whole grain cornmeal, whole grain flour (also called masa harina), and even popcorn
  • Refined = Corn meal, enriched corn meal, corn flour, degerminated corn, grits, and corn starch
  • Oats

I think that oats are one of the most fabulous grains solely because it is so easy to ensure you are purchasing the whole grain. According to the Whole Grains Council “oats almost never have their bran and germ removed in processing. So if you see oats or oat flour on the label, relax: you’re virtually guaranteed to be getting whole grain.” This rule of thumb applies to rolled oats, instant oats, quick cooking oats, steel cut oats, you name it. Whew! That certainly makes things easy and in summary…

  • Whole Grain = All oats
  • Rice

Rice is thankfully almost as easy to understand as oats. There are just two simple things to know…

  • Whole Grain = Brown and colored rice (like black or purple)
  • Refined = White rice or just “rice” when listed as an ingredient (since the germ and bran are removed)

Once again this applies to all brown/colored rice whether it is quick cooking, parboiled, brown rice flour, etc.

  • Wheat

Back to something that often seems as complex and tricky as corn, but let’s try to simplify it…

  • Whole Grain = Whole-wheat, whole-grain wheat, whole durum wheat (it MUST say the word “whole”)
  • Refined = White flour, wheat, wheat flour, enriched flour, semolina

One of the reasons this one can be tricky is that a lot of products simply say “wheat,” which means it has been refined. For some reason our society has nicknamed “whole-wheat” products as “wheat” and they are actually two very different things. If you are after the whole-grain it must (and will) say something like whole-wheat or whole-grain wheat if it truly is the whole grain.

One last important note on the subject of grains – I love the Whole Grains Council. You may have heard of them or at least recognize their stamp (pictured) on some packaged foods. They are what I consider to be the experts when it comes to understanding grains. I call them frequently, and they are always so friendly and knowledgeable when answering my questions. I have one tip though when it comes to looking for the Whole Grains stamp… there is both a basic stamp and a 100% stamp. The basic stamp tells you how many grams of whole grains per serving are contained in that product (and usually indicates the product also contains some refined grains). The 100% stamp means the product contains only 100% whole grains and therefore contains no refined grains at all. So the next time you are shopping at the supermarket, don’t be misled by some of the “whole-grains” health claims on the front of the package. Instead, do a little investigating yourself to ensure you are buying products that contain 100% whole grains (although consuming any amount of whole grains would certainly be better than none!).

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