Choosing tasty grains for health

May 09, 2001

Choosing tasty grains for health

According to a recent Gallup survey, Americans know about the wholesome goodness of grains.

Unfortunately, confusion and misperceptions seem to keep us from enjoying their health benefits. Americans recognize that grain foods are healthy foods. The problem is that they aren't eating enough grains, especially whole grains, to enjoy their health-enhancing, disease-fighting nutrients.

The Gallup survey highlighted the myths and misperceptions that keep us from getting the grains our bodies need. In terms of grains, Americans can talk the talk. In the Gallup survey, 83 percent of respondents knew that grains give you energy. More than 70 percent also knew that grain foods could help with maintaining a healthy weight, preventing heart disease and reducing the risk of certain cancers. However, 52 percent thought bread was fattening and 44 percent thought starches should be avoided.

This confusion means we are a step behind when it comes to walking the nutrition walk. Americans eat the bare minimum of grain foods - only about six per day - compared to the six to 11 servings recommended in the Food Guide Pyramid. Our intake of whole grains is even worse - averaging less than one serving per day. Forty percent of Americans rarely eat any whole grains.


Choosing whole-grain foods is easy - if you know where to look. To get the whole-grain goodness your body craves, all you have to do is read labels and packages carefully. One important note: The color of a food does not necessarily indicate whether it is a whole grain. Some breads have caramel coloring added to make them look like whole grains; some whole-oats products, like hot and cold cereals, are light in color.

Read labels for the following health claim: "Diets rich in whole-grain foods and other plant foods that are low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risks of heart disease and certain cancers." If this statement is on a food package, it means the food contains 51 percent or more whole grains by weight. This statement is approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration.

Read the labels and packages of grain products for ingredient information:

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Look for foods with the words "whole" or "whole grain" before the grain's name in the ingredient list.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> At a minimum, look for foods that list a whole grain - such as wheat, rye, oats, corn, barley or rice - as the first ingredient.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Foods that list all grains as 100 percent whole grain are the best sources of phytonutrients and antioxidants.

It is also important that you understand the definition of grains used to produce the products you are including in your diet.

Whole grains give you the health benefits of all parts of the grain kernel, including:

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Bran - outer shell protects seed and contains fiber, B vitamins and minerals.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Endosperm - main part of the seed contains carbohydrates and some protein.

Please turn to GRAINS, C3

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Germ - nourishment for seed contains antioxidants, vitamin E and B vitamins.

Cracked wheat is the whole-grain kernel broken into coarse, medium or fine fragments. Foods made with cracked wheat may or may not include other whole grains.

100-percent wheat just means that wheat is the only grain used in the product. It does not reveal whether the wheat is whole wheat or not.

Stone-ground is a technique for grinding grains. It usually means that the grain is coarser and that the germ is intact. The bran portion may or may not be included.

Multi-grain refers only to the fact that more than one grain is used in the product recipe. The grains used may, or may not, be whole grains.

Pumpernickel is a coarse, dark bread made with a mix of rye and wheat flours. It may or may not be made with whole-grain flours.

Organic refers to a method of farming and processing foods. This has nothing to do with whether or not a product is made from whole grains.

Choose a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains. While all grain foods can help build a healthful eating style, whole grains have some distinct health advantages. The hidden goodness of whole grains is in phytonutrients. Whole grains, like whole wheat, oats and barley are loaded with compounds proven to lower cholesterol levels, improve blood sugar values and fight cancer. The really good news is that whole grains also taste great.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County. Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

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