Why This Matters:
Grains, especially whole grains, are a mainstay in many diets due to their versatility and nutritional profile. Most natural food stores carry a wide variety of whole grains and whole grain products. Health food stores helped to make whole grains sold in bulk popular with consumers. Understanding the benefits, features and unique qualities of the different grains is important to good customer service. Many customers will ask questions about how grains are best cooked or eaten and how to use them in recipes.
Whole grains became part of the human diet about 10,000 years ago when humans began farming to grow food. For thousands of years, humans have relied on whole grains for a main portion of their diet. It's only during the 20th century that the consumption of whole grains gave way to the use of refined grains.
The health benefits of whole grains have been known and documented as far back as 4th century BC when Hippocrates, the father of medicine, recognized the benefits of whole-grain bread. In the 1800s, whole grains were recommended to prevent constipation. Today, experts recommend that a quarter of your food plate should be devoted to whole grains, the equivalent of three servings or 6 oz. - 8 oz. a day.
Overall, whole grains provide humans with:
- Carbohydrates which converts into energy
- Protein, key to building and repairing the body
- Vitamins, minerals, and fiber
- Almost no fat, or small amounts of healthy unsaturated fat
Growing amounts of research show how whole grains benefit human health:
- Cardiovascular Disease – whole grains substantially lowers total cholesterol, particularly LDL (bad) cholesterol, along with triglycerides and insulin levels.
- Type 2 Diabetes – People who consume whole grains are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
- Colorectal cancer – Some studies have shown that eating whole grains offers modest protection against colorectal cancer.
- Digestive Health – Fiber in whole grains helps prevent constipation and helps prevent diverticular disease.
- Wellness & Longevity – Whole grain consumption has been linked to fewer deaths from inflammation-related conditions.
Whole grains are nutrient-rich packages that deliver a variety of benefits: the bran and fiber make it more difficult for digestive enzymes to convert the starches into glucose (sugar). Soluble fiber helps lower cholesterol. Insoluble fiber helps move waste through the digestive tract. Fiber may also trigger the body's natural anticoagulants and help prevent the formation of small blood clots that can trigger heart attacks or strokes. The antioxidants contained in whole grains prevent LDL cholesterol from reacting with oxygen. Phytoestrogens (plant estrogens) along with some of the essential minerals including magnesium, selenium, copper, and manganese may protect against some cancers. These minerals may also help reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. And experts believe there are hundreds of nutrients in various whole grains that haven't yet been identified, some of which may prove to play important roles in human health.
Whole Grains vs. Refined Grains
Whole grains are unrefined grains that haven't had their bran and germ removed by milling so the grains include the bran, germ, and endosperm. The bran is the outer layer of the seed and contains most of the seed's fiber, along with some vitamins and minerals. The endosperm, also called the kernel, makes up the bulk of the seed. It contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals along with protein and carbohydrates. The germ is the part of the seed from which a new plant sprouts. It's a concentrated source of phytonutrients and the unsaturated oils.
Whole grains are better sources of fiber and other important nutrients, such as selenium, potassium, and magnesium. They are found in either single foods, such as brown rice and popcorn, or as ingredients in products, such as buckwheat in pancakes or whole wheat in bread. On their own, most grains can be found in many forms: whole, milled or cracked, rolled into flakes, ground into a coarse meal, or finely ground into flour. Whole grains can be cooked into a cereal, used in soups, salads, pilafs, casseroles, burgers, “meat” loaves, puddings, etc. Each variety of grain has its own nutritional profile. When a variety of grains are consumed, a diverse assortment of nutrients and energy balance is provided.
Refined grains are milled, stripping out both the bran and germ and at the same time, removing many nutrients, including fiber. The invention of industrialized roller mills in the late 19th century changed how grains were produced. The new milling (refining) methods stripped away the brand, making the grain easier to chew, easier to digest, and easier to keep without refrigeration. It also removed the germ, which contains seed oils that can cause the grain to become rancid when stored for long periods of time. The interior endosperm was also pulverized, turning it from a small, solid nugget into millions of minuscule particles, which in turn produced different tastes and textures in products. Over the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, consumers grew to prefer these milled, refined grains. Over the decades products from refined grains grew to include white flour, white rice, white bread, and degermed cornflower. Many types of bread, cereals, crackers, desserts and pastries, and countless packaged goods are made with refined grains.
Enriched grains means that some of the nutrients lost during milling are added back in, but not the lost natural fiber. Fortifying grains means adding in nutrients that don't occur naturally in the food. In order to meet U.S. nutritional needs as consumer demand grew for refined grains, the U.S. government decided to require certain grain products such as bread and cereal to be enriched. When a refined grain is enriched, only five of the more than 20 original vitamins and minerals are added back to the grain product often using synthetic forms. The nutrients required for grain enrichment set by the federal government and currently are iron, thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), and folic acid.
Historically, many grains sprouted accidentally during storage. Modern techniques have largely eradicated this problem. Now, new techniques of controlled sprouting give us additional nutrients for better health. When a seed sprouts, the natural growth inhibitors that keep it from germinating until the right temperature and moisture conditions are eliminated and the endosperm portion of the seed begins to transform into a baby plant. The enzymes that cause this process in the seed also make sprouted seeds easier for humans to digest.
Sprouting grains increases many of the grains' key nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin C, folate, and fiber. These baby seed plants also include essential amino acids, such as lysine, that are often lacking in grains. Sprouted grains may also be less allergenic to those with grain protein sensitivities. Studies have documented a wide range of health benefits for different sprouted grains including these:
- Sprouted brown rice helps fight diabetes.
- Sprouted buckwheat helps protects against fatty liver disease.
- Cardiovascular risk can be reduced by sprouted brown rice.
- Sprouted brown rice helps to decrease depression and fatigue in nursing mothers.
- Decreased blood pressure linked to sprouted barley.
Companies making sprouted grain products currently use two different approaches – dry and wet – once the grains are sprouted.
- The Dry Approach – Companies sprout the grain then dry it to lock in this ideal stage. At this point, the sprouted grain can be stored until it’s cooked as a side dish, or it can be milled into sprouted grain flour, which is in turn used to make a wide variety of products.
- The Wet Approach – Alternatively, other companies mash the wet, sprouted grains into a thick purée which is used to make bread, tortillas, muffins, and other products. These products are often described as “flourless” and are frequently sold frozen.
Some grains contain gluten, some do not. People who are gluten intolerant should avoid all forms of wheat and also barley, rye, triticale, and oats. Oats are inherently gluten-free, but they are frequently contaminated with wheat during growing or processing. Some companies such as Bob's Red Mill offer pure, uncontaminated oats, so store staff should look at package labeling for gluten-free certification on any product with oats.
Grains that are safe for gluten-free diets include:
Job's Tears (or Hato Mugi)
Montina (Indian rice grass)
Certified Gluten-Free Oats
Storing Whole Grains
When properly stored, bulk grain storage can last for years. But at retail, sell-through of grains should reduce the needed shelf life to months if not weeks. To increase shelf life:
- Keep out oxygen. Buy whole grains in pre-sealed food-grade plastic pails with oxygen absorbers or have the store provide storage pails with tight-fitting lids.
- Never store grains in cardboard boxes. Cardboard will allow moisture inside and encourage mold growth.
- Store grains at 65 degrees or cooler as long as possible.
- Don't store whole grain containers directly on the floor. Elevate them on pallets to allow air to circulate around the container.
- Date the containers to make sure the products are properly rotated.
Microscopic insect eggs are present in wheat and other grains, even if the grains have been cleaned. To eliminate these pests:
- Use oxygen absorbers in the storage pail. Follow instructions for maximizing their effectiveness.
- Bake the grains. For smaller quantities, grains can be spread and baked at 150 degrees for about 30 minutes which will kill all insect eggs. However, this method retards sprouting.
- Freeze the grains. Freezing will keep any insects from hatching.
- Use diatomaceous earth, a single-celled algae that is not harmful to humans but will eliminate bugs.