In the past year, “Whole Grain” has become a huge buzzword in the health industry. We have seen Cheerios switch over to using whole grains. There’s been a drastic rise in the amount of whole grain tortillas, breads and other wheat products on the market, all under the proclamation that “whole grain” is healthier. Since it has been shown that refined grain products such as white breads and sugary cereals jack up glucose levels, mess with insulin secretion and have contributed to high rates of obesity, diabetes, etc, whole grains have been suggested as a healthier alternative. But are whole grain products truly better for you, or is this more BS marketing by the food industry trying to sell us products? The answer is that maybe it’s a little of both.
So what exactly are whole grain products and how do they differ from white breads? Grains are made up of three parts – the bran, the endosperm, and the germ. The bran is the outer casing of the seeds and contains the bulk of the fiber, along with a good amount of nutrients, vitamins and lignans. The germ is the embryo or seed that will develop into the plant, and it contains proteins, trace minerals and vitamins. The endosperm is the starch that surrounds and supplies the seed with nutrients while it is growing, and it is comprised of mostly carbohydrates with some protein. Refined grains, which white breads and pastas are made of, are made with the separated endosperm starches, which are milled to remove the fiber and vitamins. This gives a smoother texture and lengthens shelf life. Whole grain products are simply products that include all three of the bran, endosperm and germ when they are processed.
Obviously whole grain products would have more nutrients than refined grain products, and should always be used instead of the nutritionally inferior white products. However, a couple of questions still remain to be answered.
1. Just like with sugar, should we be worried about misleading marketing on packages?
The answer is a resounding YES. There are numerous labeling deceptions that companies use to entice people to buy a product that isn’t really made from 100% whole grains. Many “whole wheat” breads are simply white breads with brown food colorings or molasses added to give them the brown color that people associate with whole grain breads. Companies will also use flour blends that combine refined flours with whole grain flours, but the ratios vary – if the whole grain flour is listed second on the ingredients list (things are listed in order of amounts), the whole grain portion of the blend may be anywhere from 1-49%. Food companies have also started using the term “Made with Whole Grains!”, which could mean that all they did was throw a couple of oats in the mix or on top of their horrible sugary white bread product. Other terms to watch out for include:
"Good source of whole grain"
Multigrain, Seven-grain, etc.
Also beware the black & gold whole grain seal, since it only means that a half serving of whole grains per portion have been used. This is essentially useless and equates to the 0 grams of trans fats label gaff the FDA is using.
2. Even though whole grain products have more fiber, vitamins and minerals, do they have a different impact on our blood sugars?
This one may surprise you since whole grains have become considered such a “health” food, but the answer is NOT REALLY. If you compare whole grain versions to their refined cousins on the glycemic index, the truth is that there isn’t that big of a difference. No grain can be eaten unrefined – all have to be milled or ground to some extent to remove substances like phyates and phytic acid that interfere with absorption and assimilation of nutrients like minerals. Whole grains might be processed less than fully refined ones, but even with minimal processing, whole grains are relative fiber lightweights compared to many fruits and veggies. Thus you will still see the same glycemic impact and insulin spikes with brown vs. white rice, or with white vs. whole grain bread/cereal. Whole oats are one of the few exceptions.
Whole grains might be a better alternative than refined carbohydrate products, but I would recommend limiting your consumption of all breads, pastas and cereals as much as possible. Nutrition Guru Jonny Bowden is not a fan of grains--citing that the 10,000 years we have had agriculture is less than a sliver of the 2.4 million years our digestive systems have had to adapt to other foods in our diet like meat and produce. This probably accounts for as many as 1 in 33 people having gluten allergies or sensitivities and wheat being one of the top seven food allergens. Throw in the fact that cattle are fed grains to fatten them up instead of grass, and you can see why grains might not be the best food for us to be ingesting. If you insist on buying breads and cereals, check the ingredients list on the back for sugar content and try to find brands with at least five grams of fiber per serving. You can also look for sprouted grain varieties, which although they might not have high fiber content, contain higher amounts of minerals and vitamins without the concerns about anti-nutrients such as phytic acid (which are naturally broken down in the sprouting process).
Jessica Gereau – Jessica has a BS in Kinesiology from San Francisco St. University. Before becoming a certified personal trainer she achieved a personal weight loss of 60+ lbs, and this has motivated her to help others obtain similar goals. She founded Gym Class Fitness Studio in the Bay Area as a place where people can learn what she learned along the way - that cookies are a part of life, and the hard way is the only way. Jessica currently carries certifications for ACSM and NASM.