There was a time, not so long ago, when the words whole grain didn’t, amount to a pile of beans. In essence, that’s because that’s what was mostly available. Then came the industrialization of our food and people no longer grew their own wheat, or made their own bread. Progress can, however, be a double edged sword. Yes, this culinary revolution made more food available to more people but a by product of this change meant that the wheat people consumed became more and more refined.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Whole grains are the seeds of certain plants – that is to say, the inedible, outermost layer of the plant. The husk, as it is most commonly called, is usually removed, leaving what is referred to as the groat. The groat is prized because it contains all 3 parts of the grain - the bran, the germ and the endosperm. A wonderful gem of nutrients all bundled together. However, what typically and lamentably happens during the milling process is that the germ and the bran are removed, leaving the endosperm. The endosperm is the largest part of the grain, but, alas, it has the fewest vitamins and minerals. Those, in fact, are contained within the bran and the germ. To make up for this deficiency, refined grains are then “enriched” with additional nutrients, most commonly riboflavin, thiamin and iron. I’m sure you’ve seen the words “enriched” on packages of white wheat flour, pearled barley and white rice, certainly the most popular grains consumed in North America today. Despite this enrichment though, refined flours and grains are still far less nutritious than their whole grain counterparts. They not only lack the full range of vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, anti-oxidants and phyto-nutrients found in whole grains, they also provide far less fiber.
Refined grains also lack the synergistic benefits of whole foods, which scientists are just beginning to explore. The simplest way to explain what I mean by synergistic is that by saying one plus one equals three. In other words, if you eat a whole piece of fruit, you’re getting the nutrients from the flesh, the fiber from the skin or the membranes, as well as the benefits from the unique way our bodies process all these nutrients and minerals together. Enrichments seem to be cast in isolation and simply don’t function the way that Hashem created it with all the complex parts of a whole food to act and to be of benefit.
It’s important to recognize that the medicine cabinet of vitamin B as well as vitamin E, manganese, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper and selenium, fiber, beneficial fatty acids, anti-oxidants and phyto nutrients work together to keep our immune system in tip top shape. It also keeps our neurological system humming along by maintaining proper blood sugar levels, which in turn keep us focused and energetic.
Is it any wonder that research has linked eating whole grains to a wide range of health benefits such as proper blood cholesterol levels, healthy weight maintenance and the reduction of type 2 diabetes?
Newer scientific studies into the health benefits of eating whole grains are focusing on the lignans and oligosaccharides which function as prebiotics. Basically, prebiotics are ingredients that stimulate the growth of healthy and beneficial bacteria, such as lactobacilli (acidophilus) and bifidobacterium, (bifidus), which are known as probiotics. Probiotics promote the growth of beneficial intestinal flora, which in turn help to keep our gut (lower intestine) in optimal health. Since over 70% of our immune health lies in our lower intestine, it’s vital to have a steady flow of both prebiotics and probiotics in our diet. ****
As with most dietary changes, it’s important to introduce whole grains gradually so they become a steady part of our dietary lifestyle, as opposed to a passing fad. I always suggest caution and recommend that when serving rice, for instance, use 2/3 part regular rice and then 1/3 whole grain rice to help acclimatize your family’s palates. Before you know it, not only will your spouse and children be clamoring for more whole grains, they’ll be requesting second portions as well.
Please look for upcoming posts which will discuss in more detail fiber as well as specific grains.