September 16, 2010
You may have noticed a new word cropping up more often on food packaging lately: wholegrain. So why would you choose a wholegrain food and why is it being talked about on food labels these days?
Well, first of all a quick word about food research. Our knowledge of how food affects our health is constantly improving. For example, about 25 years ago we started to realise that not all fats are the same, and we started to see a difference between saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated... well, you get the idea. Today, researchers have found that with carbohydrates, the type of carbohydrates we eat may be just as important as the amount.
This recent research has shown that replacing refined grains with wholegrains decreases your risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Also, the natural chemicals called phytoestrogens may protect against some cancers. On top of all that, the fibre in wholegrains helps keep you regular.
As a result of this research, guidelines in the USA suggest people eat at least half of their breads and cereals as wholegrain. Next year, the revised guidelines for Australians are also expected to recommend that people eat more wholegrains and limit refined grains.
What is a wholegrain?
Wheat, oats, corn, rice, barley and rye are all grains. These are made into foods such as bread, cereal and pasta. They are grouped together because the grains are seeds on a grass-type plant.
The grain is made of three parts: the germ, the core (endosperm) and the bran. The germ nourishes the seed with B vitamins, vitamin E and minerals as well as healthy oils and antioxidants. The inner core provides the seed with a store of carbohydrate and protein. The outside layer, the bran, protects the seed. It contains fibre as well as vitamins and minerals.
When a grain like wheat is refined to make white flour, most of the bran and some of the germ is removed to leave the core which is then ground up. People started to refine grain because by removing the oils in the germ the flour could be stored for longer, and also the bread was easier to chew and digest. Interestingly, white rice is the same in that most of the bran and germ are polished away to leave only the white rice core.
Refined flour has plenty of carbohydrate and protein for energy and growth but it has less than half the B vitamins, very little of the vitamin E or minerals (iron, magnesium and zinc) and none of the fibre or healthy fats from the original wholegrain. So it’s not really surprising that wholegrains, with all the extra nutrients, are better for your health.
Where to find wholegrains
Wholegrains can be grains you can see, like in grain bread, or they can be ground up like in wholemeal bread. Some wholegrain foods can take time to get used to because they taste a bit different and can be very filling (great for keeping a healthy weight!). It’s a good idea to add wholegrains into your diet slowly, aiming to get to at least 4 serves of wholegrains each day. The key is to swap refined grains like white bread for wholegrain foods like a grain bread.
Refined grain foods include white bread, white rice or ‘regular’ pasta, rice noodles, doughnuts, muffins, cakes
Wholegrain foods include wholemeal, rye, spelt or grain bread, brown rice, wholewheat pasta, oats, popcorn, wholewheat couscous
Some everyday ideas to swap wholegrains in and refined grains out
Check your breakfast cereal: is a wholegrain listed as the first ingredient?
Try porridge or muesli made with oats, or a breakfast cereal with a wholegrain as the first ingredient
Swap your white bread sandwich to wholemeal bread or a wholegrain wrap.
Snack on a wholegrain crispbread, or wholegrain rice crackers, or snack bars with wholegrains as main ingredients (see my snack post for tips on choosing a snack)
Try brown rice with your stir fry (it has a great nutty flavour), or make multicoloured pasta: half wholemeal half white (just remember the wholemeal takes a bit longer to cook)
Have corn on the cob instead of a potato
Experiment with some different grains every so often like wholewheat bulgur (tabouleh) or quinoa (not technically a grain but nutritionally very similar)
Got a tip on getting kids to eat more wholegrains, or a question for me? Share it below.