Health Benefits of Grains


Breads, cereals, rice, and pasta have one thing in common -- they are all made from grains. Any food made from wheat, rice, oats, corn, or another cereal is a grain product. These foods should form the foundation of the diet for several reasons.

First, grain-based foods are rich in complex carbohydrates, your body's best energy source. As the body's key fuel, carbohydrates provide your brain, heart, and nervous system with a constant supply of energy to keep you moving, breathing, and thinking. Grain products also supply B vitamins and iron (especially if they're enriched or include the whole grain), as well as other beneficial phytonutrients (substances in plants with health-protective effects). In addition, many grain-based foods supply fiber.

In this article, we will look at different grain items and how each fits into a healthy diet to make your body stronger. Eating healthier can be part of an alternative treatment against illnesses. Let's start by examining whole grains.

The Whole Story

An important strategy for choosing the best grain foods is to seek out products made from whole grains. A whole grain is the entire edible part of any grain, whether it's wheat, oats, corn, rice, or a more exotic grain. The three layers of a grain kernel each supply important nutrients:

  • The outer protective coating, or bran, is packed with fiber, B vitamins, protein, and trace minerals.
  • The endosperm supplies mostly carbohydrate and protein and some B vitamins.
  • The germ is rich in B vitamins, vitamin E, trace minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients.

When whole grains are milled (refined), the bran and the germ portions are removed, leaving only the endosperm. Unfortunately, more than half the fiber and almost three-quarters of the vitamins and minerals are in the bran and germ. When you eat foods made from whole grains, you get the nutritional benefits of the entire grain. Enriched grain products add back some of the B vitamins -- thiamin, folic acid, riboflavin, and niacin -- and iron lost when the grain was milled. But lots of other nutrients and fiber don't get added back.

Whole-Grain Goodness

The individual nutrients in whole-grain foods -- fiber, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and vitamins and minerals -- each offer important health benefits of their own. When they work together in the "whole" food, however, they interact in powerful ways that help protect your health. For example, a diet rich in whole-grain foods is associated with lower risk for several chronic diseases and conditions including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and gastrointestinal troubles. It can also play a role in the treatment of many of these diseases.

A wide array of whole-grain foods is available in today's supermarkets. Examples of foods that can be found in whole-grain versions include breads, ready-to-eat and hot cereals, brown rice, pasta, crackers, tortillas, pancakes, waffles, and muffins. You just need to know what to look for.

Smart Grain Decisions

When you're choosing among grain products to make your body stronger against illness, follow these tips to get the most fiber- and nutrient-filled forms.

Breakfast cereals: Look for "whole grain" on the front of the package. The words "whole grain" or "whole" appear in front of wheat, oats, rice, corn, barley, or another grain as the first ingredient. Hint: Oats are always whole, even if they're rolled, instant, fine-cut, or coarse-cut.

Breads, tortillas, and crackers:  Look for "whole wheat" or "whole grain" in the product's name. A whole-grain flour, such as whole-wheat flour, should be the first ingredient listed. Wheat flour, enriched flour, and degerminated cornmeal are not whole grain.

Pasta and rice: Only brown rice is whole grain. Look for pasta made from whole-wheat flour. Hint: Some pastas are made with a mix of whole-wheat and white flours; they may be a good stepping stone or compromise if you're having trouble adjusting to the texture of whole-wheat-only pastas.

Your Daily Bread and More

Try some of these easy ways to make grains, especially whole grains, a regular part of your day.

  • Get the first of your three ounces of whole grains from a whole-grain breakfast cereal.
  • Use whole-wheat pasta in hearty soups, hot casseroles, and chilled salads.
  • Make the switch to brown rice, or try a combination of brown and white rice.
  • When you make bread, muffins, biscuits, cookies, pancakes, or waffles, substitute whole-wheat flour for half of the white flour, or add some oats, wheat germ, or bran cereal.
  • Take a whole grain to lunch -- a sandwich on whole-grain bread is one way to go, or add some new appeal to your lunchtime meal with a whole-grain bagel, roll, tortilla, or pita.
  • Snack on popcorn, low-fat granola made with whole oats, brown-rice cakes, or snack mixes made with whole-grain cereal.
  • Sprinkle wheat germ, oat bran, or bran cereal on yogurt, salads, or cut-up fruit. Or use it to coat fish or chicken or to top a tuna casserole. When you prepare a meat loaf or any meat mixture, add some bran cereal or wheat germ instead of bread crumbs.
  • Be adventurous and try whole grains you've never tasted, such as whole-grain barley, bulgur, kasha, amaranth, quinoa, and couscous. Note: If you can't find whole-grain barley, choose scotch barley or pot barley, instead of pearled barley, which has lost a greater amount of fiber and nutrients in processing.

Whole Grain CluesYou may see a "whole grain" seal or emblem on a grain-food package -- some manufacturers have created their own seal to signify that a product is made from whole grains. Or you may see this FDA-authorized 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 risk of heart disease and certain cancers." Foods that bear this claim must contain at least 51 percent or more whole grains by weight and be low in fat.When you know the proper grains to select for your diet, it's important to know where and how to keep them so they don't lose their nutritional value. We will review tips on how to properly store grains in the next section.

Preserving Grains' Nutritional Value

An important part of including a good variety of grains in your daily diet is knowing how to store them. You don't want them to lose their nutritional value as they sit in your cupboard or on the shelf until you are ready to cook.

All cereal should be stored in a dry location. Keep the inner bag folded down tightly to keep bugs out, or store the cereal in a container with a tight-fitting lid. Once opened, it'll keep for a few months before it goes stale, unless you live in a humid environment. If so, your best bet is not to buy the large box unless you know you'll finish it in a month or so. Another option is to transfer the cereal to a resealable plastic bag and refrigerate it.

Keep oats in a dark, dry location in a well-sealed container to keep bugs out. Store the container in the refrigerator if you live in a humid locale. The oats will keep up to a year. Whole-oat groats are more likely to become rancid, so be sure to refrigerate them.

Dried pasta is fine stored in your cupboards for months, especially if transferred to airtight containers.

Putting your colored pastas in see-through glass jars makes a pretty display, but they'll lose B vitamins that way; better to keep them cool and dry, away from light, and sealed up tight. Rice and other grains are also best stored in a cool, dark location. Brown rice is more perishable than white rice. It keeps only about six months -- slightly longer if you refrigerate it.

Because of its fat content, wheat germ goes rancid easily. Always store opened wheat germ in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container. If you buy it in a jar, you can simply store it in the refrigerator in its original container. Fresh wheat germ should smell something like toasted nuts, not musty.

Unopened, a sealed jar of wheat germ will keep for about one year. Once opened, it can keep up to nine months in the refrigerator if the jar is resealed tightly.

Whole-wheat breads may not have preservatives added. To prevent your bread from going stale, leave out at room temperature only as much as you'll eat in the next day or two, and keep it tightly closed in a plastic bag. Put the rest in the freezer. It defrosts quickly at room temperature if you take out one or two slices as needed. Or you can defrost a few slices in a jiffy in the microwave. But don't refrigerate your bread -- it actually goes stale faster.

Grains are an important source of carbohydrates and energy. When choosing grain products, it is best to select items made from whole grains. Though there are many tales and truths about grains, the right selection will give your body more disease-fighting potential and contribute to a healthier lifestyle.

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