The Truth About Whole Grains

Whole grains are excellent sources of dietary fiber, which can help reduce blood cholesterol levels. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times / MCT)

On a recent family vacation, I was given the task of picking out a few snacks at a rest stop for the remaining car ride. Knowing that there were many lobster rolls and ice cream sundaes to be had in the week ahead, I wanted to have some snack options that were healthy, but satisfying enough for a three and a five-year-old. 

While my trained eye went directly to the package labeled “Whole Grain Crackers,” I found myself immediately placing them back on the shelf.  One quick look at the nutrition label indicated the product contained nothing more than the cheese-flavored snack crackers on the next shelf. 

Many parents have heard that eating whole grains can help prevent cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, and that providing children with healthy options early on in life will help to maximize overall nutrition. The problem is that many products on the grocery store shelves that are allowed to use the term “whole grains” do not contain the nutrition components that actually help to prevent these diseases; like fiber and antioxidants. 

A whole grain contains three parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The bran is the fiber-rich outer shell, which also contains minerals and B vitamins. The germ is the inner core that contains antioxidants, B vitamins, and vitamin E.  The endosperm is the middle layer, containing carbohydrates and proteins.  Refined grains only contain the endosperm, but whole grains that are heavily processed will lose their natural fiber and antioxidant content.  Many products that are made with whole grains at the beginning of processing do not contain the valuable nutrition that is helpful for digestion and disease prevention by the time it ends up in your kitchen.

The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services recommend an increase in whole grain consumption stating, “Make at least half of your grains whole.” 

Here are five tips to make sure that your whole grains have the beneficial nutrition your kids need and how to incorporate in their diet: 

  1. Check the ingredient list.  The first ingredient listed should be a whole-grain for example: “whole wheat,” “whole oats,” “whole rye.”  Other whole grains include oatmeal, bulgur, and whole-grain cornmeal. Products that are made with 100 percent whole grains may be more likely to retain some of their nutrition in the final product. 
  2. Look for products with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.  If it contains less, but was made with whole grains, some of the nutrition was lost during processing. 
  3. Don’t be fooled by the color of the product.  Just because it’s brown (ie, brown pasta), does not ensure that the health benefits are actually present.  Products labeled “stone-ground,” “ multi-grain,” “100% wheat,” “nine-grain,” or “cracked wheat,” may have no whole grains at all.  
  4. Start transitioning your refined items one at a time to make the transition easier for your family.  Start using whole oats instead of instant, brown rice in a stir-fry, and mix half whole wheat pasta with your traditional in mac and cheese. 

And most importantly, remember that even whole grains need to be eaten in moderation.  A cookie is still a cookie, even if it’s made with whole grains. 

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