Saturday, December 18, 2010

All About Grains

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      The other day on VisualEconomics, I came across a really interesting graphic of what the average American eats in a year. First, if you've never checked out VisualEconomics I suggest whole-heartedly that you do. The information there is presented in a very straight forward, easy to understand and share manner, and the also list their sources clearly with each representation. Secondly, the information was pretty surprising to me in the cereals / grains / wheat flour section. Check it out below:


     For a little background information, grains became a staple of human diets around 7,000 to 10,000 years ago, not terribly long ago considering the time line of human's existence on this planet. That has given evolution just enough time to begin to work magic on our intestinal tract allowing us to more readily digest them on a constant basis. This is good news for us humans who now consume, according to the data, an average of “192.3 lbs. of flour and cereal products, including 134.1 lbs. of wheat flour.” That's pretty astonishing that just a hair's breath under 70% of the grain consumption in America comes from wheat.

     For those with wheat intolerances or allergies, these numbers are a bit off, but it still demonstrates the importance of grains in our diets. I eat more now than I ever did before cutting out wheat, rye, and barley. Brown rice, millet, oats, flaxseed, quinoa, and teff are all included in my diet on a near regular basis.

     Whole grains are little tiny balls of wonder – in my world at least. I know that people will swing from the rafters to shout about the dangers of grains while watching or reducing the waist line, but I say shoot 'em down! They don't know what they say!

     There is a HUGE difference between whole grains and refined grains. Whole grains are truly the Holy Grail of grains. It's what you want and what your body needs.

     Around the turn of the 20th century, when production and demand levels began to skyrocket, manufacturers started doing things a little different so foodstuffs would not spoil as quick as they normally would. This allowed food to be shipped further and stored longer, a convenience for both supplier and buyer. In the end, however, the detriment is to the health of the consumer.

     A whole grain contains a germ (think of this as the yolk of an egg; it would provide nutrients to the seed if it were to sprout), an endosperm (this would be like the white of an egg; provides some energy for the plant should it grow), and a bran (this is the protective outer covering that holds it all together). Because the germ contains oils that go rancid over time, they were removed to help prolong shelf life. To get to this little control center of the grain the bran must be removed, as well. The end result is just the endosperm of the grain. Soon enough, manufacturers realized that this practice was stripping the grain of nearly all of it's nutritional value and began adding various vitamins and minerals back to the grains to help make up for this deficiency.

     The difference between whole and refined grain comes down to the digestion of the two.

     When a whole grain is ingested – this is whole grain like a bowl of oatmeal, not a slice of bread (more on that later) – your body has to work to break down the bran, the endosperm, and the germ allowing the proteins and carbohydrates and nutrients to be released from the grain slowly over a period of time. Your body is able to produce the insulin and other chemicals it needs to aid the digestion gradually.

     When a refined grain is ingested – this is a grain such as enriched white rice – the only thing that needs to be broken down is the endosperm. Because digestion occurs so quickly, your body is left with too much sugar in the blood because the body has not had the chance to produce enough insulin to properly deal with the sugar. This is where many dieters' belief that grains cause a spike in blood sugar and should be avoided come from.

     Products that are made from flours of whole grains are nutritionally better for you than the same product made from enriched or refined flour. However, if you are watching your grain intake to help regulate your blood sugar levels avoiding flours would be optimal. Because flours have been ground down to powder, the body can digest them faster than if the entire grain was ingested whole. The nutritional value is still there, but the digestion occurs faster. This causes similar results as eating a refined grain; digestion releases all the goodies into the blood stream before the body has a chance to use them properly. When these goodies go through your filters – liver and kidneys – those filters absorb some of the goodies and over time can become blocked.

     Whole grains provide so much more than a refined grain, even an enriched one, ever could. Whole grains help to regulate blood sugar when eaten properly, they are great sources of fiber, minerals, vitamins, oils, and healthy carbohydrates. Refined grains have been stripped of everything that makes them nutritionally dense and valuable for the sake of longer shelf life.

     Eat your grains with pride! Don't shy away from oatmeal or granolas, embrace a wild rice mix over enriched minute rice (check the Asian section to find some un-enriched white rice!), try millet or quinoa out when you make stuffed peppers or pork chops, find ways to eat whole grains more often. They help your body do what it does best!

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