Getting Whole-Grain Nutrition
Among the key recommendations in the USDA's latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans is eating more whole grains and fewer refined grains. According to the guidelines, Americans should consume six ounces of grains each day (about six slices of bread), at least half of which should be from whole grains like whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, and brown rice. (See also: Eating Frugally With MyPlate)
Ensuring that you're actually getting all the nutrients you need from grains, however, isn't always straightforward.
When you reach for your next loaf of bread or other grain-based product, look for "whole wheat" or "whole grain" on the label. Both mean that the flour used in the product was ground from all three parts of the grain — the bran or shell (fiber), the endosperm (carbohydrates), and the germ (B vitamins, Omega fatty acids, minerals).
But while labeling rules for "whole wheat" bread and pasta are strict, and only whole wheat flour can be used in those products, that's not true for "whole grains." To qualify for the label, the whole grains in the product must make up 51% or more of the product's entire weight. As a result, many "whole grain" products contain both whole and refined grains. Check the ingredient list and look for whole grain at or near the top of the list.
Those refined grains, meanwhile, are just made from a grain's starchy endosperm. Products made with refined grains such as white flour and white rice should be avoided, as they typically contain greater amounts of fat and sugar than products made from whole grains. Worse, the refining process strips away many of the vitamins and minerals found in whole grains such as the B vitamins, iron, and magnesium, plus most of the fiber.
And then there's the matter of enriched grains. To claw back some of the goodness lost in refining and to fight several nutrition-related diseases, in 1943 the federal government began requiring that refined flour and white rice be enriched with thiamin, along with riboflavin, niacin, and iron. In 1998, folic acid was added to the mix. When the label says enriched, it means that these five nutrients have been added in order to help people avoid severe deficiencies, which can cause birth defects, comas, and even, in some cases, death. Since folic acid enrichment began in the United States, for example, there has been a 25% decrease in neural tube birth defects.
While grain enrichment has almost eliminated diseases and dramatically reduced certain birth defects, the USDA is still encouraging Americans to reduce their intake of enriched refined grains. Whole grains not only contain those five essential nutrients, in almost the same amounts as enriched refined grains do, but they also provide much more. So shoot for making at least 50% of your daily grain intake whole grains, and reap the health benefits.