Grains are healthful – who knew?

Nowadays, it seems as though there is always a food or food-group that becomes deemed as the one to avoid like the plague! With so many claims out there it’s hard to keep track of which types of food are good for us to eat, and which are not. Until quite recently, this writer had failed to comprehend the importance of regularly eating grains. I had subconsciously fallen into the hullabaloo surrounding grains and their harmful effects on the body as both a consumer and nutrition professional. In hindsight, I should have known better. The realization of my inadvertently negative relationship with grains has inspired me to better understand them; below are my findings.

What are whole grains?

The United States Department of Agriculture defines any food made from “wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or other cereal grain” as a grain product. Examples of grain products include pasta, bread, tortillas, and hot/cold breakfast cereals. Grains are divided into two subgroups- (1) whole and (2) refined. Whole grain products include the entire kernel: the bran, germ and endosperm. Whole-wheat flour, oatmeal, bulgur (cracked wheat), whole cornmeal, and brown rice are all examples of whole grains. Refined grains have been milled and processed to remove the bran and the germ to increase the grains’ shelf life. White flour, white bread, white rice, and de-germed cornmeal are all examples of refined grains (All about the grains group 1). Refined grains are enriched with nutrients to replace most of those lost during processing. However, dietary fiber is not added back into enriched grains and, therefore, many of their health benefits are significantly decreased (Whole Grains and Fiber 1).

Test your Whole Grains Knowledge with this quiz:

Why should we eat whole grains?

Consuming whole grains may lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of developing heart disease, stroke, obesity, and type 2-diabetes (Whole Grains and Fiber 1). The fiber found in whole grains binds to cholesterol in the gut, preventing it from being absorbed into our blood. High cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia) is hereditary and is an issue in many families, including my own. Research shows that grains are an incredibly healthful component to add to a balanced, heart-healthy diet.

What are the recommendations for eating whole grains?

At least half of all grains eaten should be whole grains. Women need to eat about 6 servings (1 oz) of grains daily, while men need to eat about 7 servings of grains each day. In general, an ounce of grains is equivalent to 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of ready to eat cereal, or ½ cup of cooked rice, cooked pasta, or cooked cereal. Some common foods have proportionally higher ounce-equivalents of grains. For example, an English muffin has 2 ounce-equivalents of grains, and a large bagel has 4 (All about the grains group 1).

How do I figure out if a food is a whole grain?

It may take an extra minute to determine whether a product is made up of whole grains, but optimal health should be worth our time. Many producers of whole grain products will use buzzwords to create an image that their product is the healthiest option, including multi-grain and honey wheat. These claims do not reflect a completely whole grain product, though the product may be made up of some whole grains. Identifying whole grain products requires a search of the ingredients list (typically located below the nutrition label) for things like whole wheat, whole-wheat graham flour, whole oats, oatmeal, brown rice, wild rice, whole-grain corn, popcorn, whole-grain barley, whole-wheat bulgur, and whole rye. The two key words to see in the ingredient list are whole or whole grain before a grain’s name, where whole grain should be the first listed ingredient. Another easy way to identify heart healthy foods is to look for the “Heart-Check mark” on food labels (pictured above). This mark signifies that the product is made up of more than half whole grains (Whole Grains and Fiber 1). Furthermore, the Whole Grains Council has streamlined the identification of whole-grain food products using the labels below.

A grain product is made entirely with whole grains when its label bears the 100% Stamp (left image above). Products with the 100% Stamp require at least 16 grams of whole grain – a full serving – per labeled serving. A grain product containing half or more of its grain as whole grains bears the 50%+ Stamp (middle image above). Products with the 50%+ Stamp require at least 8 grams of whole grain – a half serving – per labeled serving. A grain product containing at least half whole grains will bear the Basic Stamp (right image above). Products with the Basic Stamp must contain at least 8 grams of whole grains, but may also contain some refined grains. The stamp also shows how many grams of whole grains are in a serving of the product. Anything with the 50%+ Stamp or Basic Stamp may contain large amounts of whole grain with added bran, germ, or refined flour (Whole Grain Stamp 1).

Use this Whole Grain Finder to determine if your favorite products contain whole grains:

Are whole grains grown in Montana?

Yes! Montana ranks third in total wheat production among the states and has the unique ability to grow three different classes of wheat: hard red winter, hard red spring, and durum (In the Know, 1). Purchasing grains from local sources supports our neighbors and the local economy. Locally purchased foods are also lower in food-miles; they have not traveled far from production to your plate. This will save in travel costs and decrease the carbon footprint left behind during the growing, harvesting, and processing of grains. Harvest of the Month is an outreach program that showcases Montana-grown foods in schools and communities. Per their website, “the two primary goals for this program are to expose students to new, healthy foods and to support Montana’s farmers and ranchers” (Montana Harvest 1). Coincidentally, the Harvest of the Month’s April food-group is grains!

Follow this link to see if your child’s school participates in the program and how you may get involved:

To summarize, whole grains are a vital component in creating healthful and balanced meals; they have been shown to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Furthermore, many simple tools exist to help consumers determine the most healthful grain products. Lastly, locally produced grains are easy to find in Montana, the consumption of which leads to wealthier local economies and producers, and healthier environments and consumers.