We constantly hear that whole grains are good for us and that we should include more of them in our diets. But what exactly are whole grains and what makes them so special?
“A grain is considered whole when all three parts of the kernel – the bran, germ and endosperm - are present. Together they provide a whole pack of nutrients,” says Brigid McKevith, registered dietician & public health nutritionist of Cereal Partners Worldwide (CPW).
According to McKevith, the bran (the fibre-rich outer layer) provides mainly fibre but also minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, sodium and iron) and high concentrations of B vitamins (thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and pantothenic acid), whereas the germ (the nutrient rich inner core) contains unsaturated fatty acids, including some essential fatty acids like linoleic acid.
Finally, the endosperm (the middle starchy layer), is the energy source of the whole grain, providing predominantly carbohydrates, (mainly as starch) but also some proteins and B vitamins.
“Both the germ and bran are a rich source of phytochemicals and antioxidants - including some valuable antioxidants not found in fruits and vegetables. Refining normally removes the bran and the germ, leaving only the endosperm. Without the bran and germ, about 25% of a grain’s protein is lost, along with at least seventeen key nutrients,” McKevith explains.
Whole grains include grains like wheat, corn/mealies, rice, oats, barley, quinoa, sorghum, spelt, rye – when these foods are eaten in their "whole" form, and even popcorn!
The benefits of whole grains
“People who eat more whole grains are generally healthier, have a healthier body weight over time and have a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some forms of cancer,” says McKevith.
“Scientific studies consistently show that people who eat at least 48 grams of whole grains each day can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and diabetes by between 20-40% and certain cancers by up to 40%.”
According to the Cancer Association whole grains help protect us against cancer by reducing the risk of colorectal cancer and colon cancer.
“Whole grains are rich sources of fermentable carbohydrates, which are transformed by the intestinal flora into short-chain fatty acids. These acids can reduce the activity of certain cancer-causing factors. Whole grain fibres also increase faecal bulk and bind carcinogens, which can be speedily removed from the bowel before they cause problems.”
Other benefits of whole grains indicated by recent studies include reduced risk of asthma, healthier carotid arteries, reduction of inflammatory disease risk, healthier blood pressure levels and less gum disease and tooth loss.
Go for 48 grams per day
To gain the benefits whole grains have to offer, health organisations recommend eating at least 48g (3 x 16g servings) of whole grains a day.
Unfortunately the majority of people are not achieving their daily recommended intake of whole grain.
“Current consumption of whole grains is well below dietary recommendations globally,” says McKevith. “Evidence from various international studies suggests that just 1 in 10 is achieving an intake of 48g/day wholegrain,” she adds.
How can I increase my intake?
“Start your day with a whole grain breakfast cereal,” McKevith advises. “Choose a breakfast cereal that contains at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving.”
Swap white bread for whole wheat bread, switch to whole wheat noodles and swap white rice for brown or wild rice. “To start, try mixing white rice with brown rice."
McKevith also advises that you look for the word “whole” before the grain in a food product’s ingredient list (for example “wholegrain wheat”). Also check whether whole grains are listed towards the start of the list (this is an indication whether it’s one of the main product ingredients).
Is it whole grain or not?
Save a copy of the useful info below and take it with you the next time you go shopping:
Whole grain: Bulgur wheat, cracked wheat, wholemeal flour, durum wheat (used in pasta), spelt, buckwheat.
Not whole grain: Cous cous, white flour, puffed wheat breakfast cereal, wheat germ, bran, wheat flour tortillas
Whole grain: Whole oats, rolled oats, porridge (also know as "oatmeal"), oat flake
Not whole grain: Oat flour
Whole grain: Whole barley, hulled barley, naked barley.
Not whole grain: Pearled barley, barley flakes and barley flour
Whole grian: Brown rice and wild rice
Not whole grain: White rice and rice flour
Whole grain: Corn on the cob, popcorn and whole corn tortillas
Not whole grain: corn flour, polenta and corn grits
Other cereals, grains and seeds
Whole grain: Rye, millet, sorghum, triticale, teff, amaranth, quinoa
Not whole grain: flax seeds, sunflower seeds, chick peas and soy peas
So, now that you know what whole grains are, why not include more in your life? You’ll not only keep your taste buds happy and your hunger pangs at bay, you’ll also boost your health along the way.
(Sources: Whole Grains for Health, Nestle, Cereal partners worldwide, US Whole Grains Council ; Cancer Association of South Africa, www.healthcastle.com)