Even if you don’t already eat whole grains, you’ve probably heard about them. But, despite all the talk about whole grains, there’s a lot of confusion out there about what they are and why they’re an essential part of a well-balanced diet.
The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that at least half of the grains adults eat should be whole grains. Yet most people don’t get enough of this important whole food.
An important source of fiber, essential minerals and other nutrients, whole grains in general are a food group associated with lower rates of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and other chronic diseases. The Oldways Health Studies Database is a great resource for learning more about the connection between whole grain intake and reduced risk of disease.
Just as it’s important to eat different types of fruits and vegetables, it’s good to eat a variety of whole grains. Each whole grain has a slightly different nutritional profile, and you receive the most benefit when you eat a diverse mix.
Read on to understand what whole grains are, know what to look for when you’re buying whole grains and discover whole grains that are new to you.
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What Is a Whole Grain?
A whole grain is an edible kernel with three parts:
1) The bran is the outside layer of the kernel. It contains antioxidants, B vitamins and ?ber.
2) The endosperm is the largest part of the kernel and is the middle layer. It’s made up of starchy carbohydrates, proteins and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.
3) The germ is the inner-most layer. The germ is the section which has the potential to sprout into a new plant. It contains some protein, minerals, healthy fats and many B vitamins.
The key to a whole grain is that it includes all three parts. A grain that does not include all three is a refined grain, such as white flour or white rice.
Whole grains vary in size, shape and flavor. Examples are whole wheat, oats, quinoa, brown rice and buckwheat. You can eat them on their own — like a bowl of oatmeal — or they might be an ingredient like oat flour (aka ground oats) that you use in cooking or baking. Along with produce, whole grain foods make up the foundation of the Oldways Diet Pyramids, which are handy visual guides for eating nutritionally balanced diets like the Mediterranean Diet.
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Best Way to Find Whole Grains
You know you’re eating whole grains if you are having a side of brown rice or a bowl of steel cut oats. But healthy whole grains are used more and more in packaged foods like pastas, breads, granola bars and chips. The opportunity to find whole grains in the aisles of your grocery store is always expanding.
The Whole Grain Stamp is the easiest way to determine if a food product contains whole grains. The bright yellow stamp stands out on packaging and is a guide to help you locate products that contain whole grains and how much they contain.
There are three varieties of the Whole Grain Stamp:
— The 100% stamp with all of the grain ingredients being whole grains.
— The 50%+ stamp where at least half of its grain ingredients are whole grain.
— The basic stamp which contains at least 8 grams or a half serving of whole grain, but may contain more re?ned grain than whole.
The stamp also provides you with how many grams of whole grain ingredients are in a serving of the product. If products do not have the stamp, look for terms like “100% whole wheat,” “whole [name of grain],” “stone-ground whole [name of grain],” “brown rice,””oats” and “wheat berries” on packaging and in ingredient lists.
If you see the words “whole grain” without more details or mention of the specific type whole grain, the product may contain minimal amounts of whole grains. If you see vague phrases like “made with whole grain” on the packaging, make sure to check the ingredient list and look for the Whole Grain Stamp.
These words do NOT mean whole grain:
— Enriched flour.
— Wheat flour.
— Degerminated (on corn meal).
— Wheat germ.
Including Whole Grains in Your Meals
The USDA recommends that adults eat at least three to five daily servings of whole grains — and at least two to three servings for children.
For a general idea of what you can eat to get one serving of whole grains, possible options are a half cup of cooked oatmeal, whole grain pasta or brown rice; a cup of whole grain cold cereal (dry); or a slice of whole grain bread. Brown rice, quinoa, oats and whole wheat flour are great whole grains you can add to your meals.
Here are some other suggestions if you’re curious to include a variety of less common whole grains into your diet.
With a subtle pepper flavor and hint of nuttiness, amaranth lends itself nicely to a variety of dishes. It’ a popular ingredient in crunchy cereals and crackers, adds heartiness to breads, muffins and pancakes — and also works nicely in warm porridge. Amaranth is a complete protein and has antioxidants, fiber and minerals like magnesium, phosphorous, iron and manganese. To be certain a product contains the whole grain amaranth, look for “whole amaranth” on the product’s ingredient list or look for the Whole Grain Stamp.
Sorghum, also called milo, can thrive in all kinds of environments, from tropical to arid locations, and is grown around the world. It’s a small round grain that can be used in place of rice or couscous, popped like popcorn, cooked as a porridge or even brewed into beer.
Grind it into flour to make creamy gluten-free cookie dough or a flatbread like roti. Compared to many other grains, sorghum has high antioxidant levels and also contains a mix of good-for-you phytochemicals. Look for the terms “whole sorghum” or “whole grain sorghum” on the ingredient list, or look for the Whole Grain Stamp. Pearled sorghum is not a whole grain.
Te? is a millet, a type of ancient grain. Teff is commonly used in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. It has a sweet, molasses-like flavor and is known for both its versatility in the conditions where it can grow and for the ways it can be used in cooking and baking. It can be cooked as porridge, added to baked goods or even made into “teff polenta.”
If you’ve ever had the spongy flatbread injera, there’s a good chance you’ve had teff. Teff has over twice the iron of other grains and three times the calcium. Teff kernels are 1/150 the size of wheat kernels, which makes them difficult to refine. That means that if you see teff listed in an ingredient list, it is almost always whole grain teff.
Cooking Instructions for Whole Grains
Cooking grains can be easy and is similar to cooking rice. Follow these simple steps:
1. Add the dry grain to a pot with water or broth.
2. Bring water to a boil.
3. Simmer until the liquid is absorbed.
Grains cooked with this method become a wonderful base that pick up the flavors of the foods served with them.
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