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Health Food of the month - Grains

July 2018

Picture of lines of different grains
Grains are a mainstay of most diets

Previous Health Foods of the Month...


Edible Insects

Sour bread


Diet & Supplements Index

We never had “grains” in our childhood

Hands up anyone who remembers grains from their childhood!

Yes yes, we all had bread...But how often was the word grains mentioned at home or even in the shops?  When we were young grains was a word which was vaguely connected with farms and silos and that was about it. We ate bread and wheat and cereal, but we didn’t think of grains.

Today of course grains is one of the most fashionable food words around. The media is full of talk about grains, different grains, the benefit of grains, how to cook grains and so on. What does it all mean?
Well, all grains start as whole grains, comprising the hard seed or kernel part of plants you can spot in the fields.  These plants can be wheat, barley, rye, oats, corn, rice, sorghum and so on, all offering slightly different qualities and nutrition.
Today especially in supermarket shelves, other foods are sometimes placed under the grains section but this is not always technically accurate. Popular quinoa for instance is often considered a grain, but actually it is a seed, harvested from a species of plant called goosefoot. It is more closely related to spinach and beets that to grains. Couscous again is not technically a grain. Although it originates from wheat, it is really a grain product like pasta. Pasta is made by grounding up the endosperm of the wheat to make semolina before being mixed with water and shaped into different pastas.
The term grain is often used quite loosely.

In their original state, a grain will contain three edible parts, the bran, the germ and the endosperm and these key items are protected by an inedible outer hard husk.

When harvested, these grains can be treated differently. Whole grains contain all of the seed or kernel section; refined grains have been milled which removes the bran and germ part of the seeds. This gives the grain a much finer texture and can also help the grains to keep fresh longer. But it also means the key benefits of the bran section, which contains important antioxidants and B vitamins as well as fibre, and the germ section, which contains many B vitamins plus protein, minerals and healthy fats, are lost.

What is left is the endosperm. This is the largest part of the seed or kernel and contains carbohydrates, proteins and some vitamins and minerals.

This is why it is always recommended that people eat whole grain foods such as whole wheat flour, oatmeal, whole cornmeal and brown rice rather that heavily refined grain products such as white bread and white rice where many of the key nutrients are lost.

Of course often these refined products are enriched by vitamin, mineral and other additives, but whether these are exactly the same as the goodness lost in the refining process is not clear.

Grains are of course a very important part of our diet, and generally the grains recommended to give the most benefit are:

Whole wheat. This is easily found in products such as bread, but make sure the label shows 100 per cent whole wheat.  Multigrain and simple wheat won’t be the same. Interestingly, today you can also find pasta made from 100 per cent whole wheat. It will take longer to cook, but will give better nutrition.

Whole oats. Oatmeal (made from milled oat grains) is also as good if made from whole oats. Whole oats are particularly rich in an antioxidant that helps protect the heart.

Brown rice. It is sad to think that during the milling process for white rice, over 75 per cent of the key nutrients, including the antioxidants, magnesium, B vitamins and phosphorus, are removed. Brown rice, basmati, red and black rice are all high in nutrients.

Whole rye has been described as the most complete grain. Certainly it offered good levels of nutrients especially iron, and it offers four times more fibre than normal whole wheat. Be careful though, as many rye products including pumpernickel bread can be made from refined flour.

Whole grain barley. This is especially high in essential antioxidants, vitamins and minerals and there is some evidence that it may help lower cholesterol. You need to read the labels carefully though; pearl barley for instance is usually prepared without the bran layer.

Bulgur wheat. This is sometimes referred to as cracked wheat, and is generally considered a whole grain although actually up to 5 per cent of its bran section can be removed during processing. But it still contains high levels of nutrients including iron and magnesium, plus very high levels of fibre and protein. It also cooks quickly which is useful.

As we become more and more international, other grains are coming into our lives. Freekeh is a new one you may not have heard of but it is highly nutritious. It is an ancient Arabic grain common today in the Middle East. Freekeh is a prebiotic, helping to stimulate health bacteria, plus it contains high levels of vitamins and minerals including selenium which is such a good boost for your immune system.

There is lots of good information at the Boston, US, based Whole Grain Council.

There is also a lot of more detailed information about grains, including how we spoil grains today by modern processing.


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