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Make Half Your Grains Whole



What comes to your mind when I say whole grain? Do you think of bread? What about other grains?

Whole grains are brown rice, whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, oatmeal, maybe barley, whole-wheat pita breads and whole-wheat couscous if you are adventurous. But many people are buying whole-wheat versions of savory crackers, sweet breakfast cereals, chocolate chip cookies and even doughnuts, believing they are now health foods.

The new MyPyramid recommends that at least three, or half, of all your one-ounce equivalents from the grain group be whole grains. If you choose to eat all your grains as whole grains, that is a good decision, but it certainly doesn’t mean you have to give up white rice if you prefer it.

The definition of a whole grain is one that has all parts of the grain, including the bran, the germ and the endosperm. To be sold as a whole grain, the first ingredient on the label must be whole wheat or the package must state that it is an excellent source of whole grains. Fiber in whole grains helps promote digestive health. Fiber is the part of plant foods that is not digested by the human body. Adults need about 25-35 grams of fiber from various sources, including fruits and vegetables, each day. More recently, studies have shown that eating more whole grains may help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Studies published in 2005 and 2006 show that whole grains may lower triglycerides, improve insulin control, help with weight management and slow the buildup of arterial plaque.

Refined grains, on the other hand, only have the starchy part -- the endosperm -- left. The germ and bran have been removed. Refining, or processing, removes many B vitamins, iron, some vitamin E and the fiber from a grain. Food items made with white flour are enriched with nutrients, some of which were removed during processing. Milled rice has the outer bran layer removed, leaving the polished white grain. Color is not a good indicator when looking for whole grains, since many bakers and manufacturers add caramel coloring or molasses to their products to give them a more wholesome brown appearance. Though many brown breads are whole-grain, usually wheat or honey wheat is not. Even some multigrain breads do not meet the definition for a whole grain.

Here is where the usual confusion comes in. It has become quite popular for food companies to list the number of grams of whole grains included in the product prominently on the label, using a logo that states the product is made with whole grains. This is not the same as the number of grams of dietary fiber, which is located on the nutrition facts label under carbohydrates. In order to get your equivalent of three daily servings, you need to get 48 grams of whole grains. To get that much, you would have to eat 16 doughnuts made with whole wheat. This fact puts products like whole-wheat chocolate chip cookies that are only made with whole grains into perspective.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when shopping for excellent sources of whole grains. Does the product meet the requirement to be a whole grain? Check the ingredients label to see if the first thing listed is a whole grain. Wheat flour is not the same as whole-wheat flour. Is it heart healthy? If the product is low in sodium, saturated fat and is trans fat free, then it is heart healthy. Is it calorie-dense? Fat and sugar increase the calorie density of grain foods. Some crackers with added fat, cereal with added sugar and sweets like doughnuts and cookies all have added fat and sugar that add a lot more calories than traditional cooked whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice and whole-wheat pasta.

In South Louisiana, there is a strong aversion to brown rice. White rice is a staple as an accompaniment to gumbos and etouffees. However, brown rice is a nice alternative. But it takes more planning. Brown rice takes more water and a longer cooking time. Using two and a half cups of water to each cup of rice is acceptable, but try more water if you want a very tender grain. Cook at least 45 minutes on low in a covered pot until the water cooks out, or 30 minutes in the microwave if you use one of the plastic rice cookers.

With whole-wheat pasta, the shorter the pasta, the more appealing the taste and texture is after cooking. Some prefer macaroni over spaghetti. You can also make a mixture of cooked whole-wheat pasta with the cooked, refined pasta as an experiment in textures. They need to be cooked separately, since the whole-wheat pasta takes a little longer to cook. Once pasta is served with a sauce, it is hard to tell the difference.

Barley tastes great in beef and vegetable soups. But it may also be substituted for rice. Cooked whole-wheat couscous is good with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic and a little olive oil. And remember, popcorn is a whole grain, too. Just be careful with the microwave versions. Because of the salt and fat content, they might not be heart healthy. Try mixing whole-grain cereals with plain cereal, or sprinkle whole-grain cereal on top of yogurt and fruit to make a parfait. Try toasting whole-wheat bread, or make your own and include nuts and seeds to add to the fiber content. Remember to refrigerate or freeze whole-wheat flour since it can go rancid. Also try the white whole-wheat flour, which originates from a white variety of wheat which is milder in flavor that the regular whole-wheat flour made from a variety of red wheat.

There are many tasty ways to include whole grains in your diet. Just read the food labels carefully. Go for the facts represented in the nutrition facts label and the ingredients.

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