Are you getting tricked into buying fake “Healthy Whole Grains”?
I recently read Wheat Belly while developing a talk about grains and gluten. (If you haven’t read it, the premise is that modern wheat is making us bigger and sicker.)
Author William Davis makes numerous sarcastic references to the term “healthy whole grains,” juxtaposed with examples of foods that are rarely eaten in whole grain form: Pancakes, waffles, bagels, crackers, pretzels, and muffins, muffins, muffins. (He has a thing about muffins. He mentions them 52 times!) He doesn’t use examples like quinoa, bulgur, barley, brown rice, or other minimally processed whole grains.
I wonder, does he know what a “whole grain” really is? Do you? Somewhere between the public health recommendation to eat “healthy whole grains” and the reality of what’s on our plates, the meaning of the term has been obscured.
Whole grains are foods that contain the “essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed in their original proportions” (Whole Grains Council), whether they are eaten intact, as in barley, rolled, as in oats, or even ground as flour. If you’re eating refined grains, on the other hand, you’re getting only the endosperm (see image below), and missing all of the goodness in the bran and the germ.
(To complicate things, in Canada, but not the US, if you see the ingredient “whole wheat,” you’re getting the endosperm and the bran, but not the germ. Look for “whole grain” whole wheat instead.)
It’s worth looking for whole grains. People who eat them instead of refined grains enjoy a number of health benefits, including a lower risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart disease. Even Davis admits that this is “indeed true and indisputable,” before he proposes his solution, a “radical wheat-ectomy.” While that may be medically necessary for some, and a choice for others, for many people, a healthier and more sustainable approach is to enjoy actual “healthy whole grains,” in moderation. But do you know them when you see them?
Test your knowledge. Grab a pen and jot down which of the following you think are made of actual whole grains. (Apologies for the amateur photos. This was just me at the grocery store with my phone, trying not to attract too much attention.)
(These lists are in order by weight, so there is more of the first ingredient in the product than anything else. If it’s a whole grain, you can consider the product whole grain, although ideally there would be no refined grain, such as “enriched wheat flour,” at all.)
Ready for the answer? The whole grains are… none of the above! Surprised? Don’t let terms like “multi-grain,” “smart,” “fibre,” “gluten-free,” or “organic,” fool you into thinking you are eating a “healthy whole grain.” Those things might be important to you for other reasons, but don’t let their “health halo” blind you to the fact that they are refined grains. If the first ingredient doesn’t say “whole…” then it should be something like oats, quinoa, brown rice, cracked wheat, or another whole grain.
Do you have any “fake” whole grain products in your kitchen? We’d love to see what you found. Snap a picture and share them using the hashtag #fakewholegrain.
Refined grains are okay to eat once in a while, but ideally most, if not all of the grain products you eat will be truly whole. Here are a few examples:
(The basmati rice above is white rice, a refined grain.)
Barley is a good source of cholesterol-lowering soluble fibre, and it’s grown right here in Alberta. This barley, lentil, and quinoa blend is much faster to cook than brown rice, and has a nice texture:
Quinoa is a quick-cooking, gluten-free, nutritious choice with a pleasant nutty taste:
Freekeh is another grain you can use instead of rice. It’s a type of cracked wheat, like bulgur, and similarly, cooks in about 20 minutes. Like quinoa, it is great in salads:
Whole wheat couscous is nice because it cooks in just 5 minutes. Most whole wheat couscous is plain though, so you’ll want to jazz it up – try using low-sodium chicken stock, white wine, lemon juice or herbs.
(Canada only: As discussed above, this couscous isn’t whole grain whole wheat, but it’s better than the completely refined grain example above.)
This is one of the few whole grain crackers out there. Others include Triscuits, Wasa, or Kashi.
This is an example of a multi-grain bread that is also whole grain bread, as you can see from the ingredient list:
Whole grain whole wheat pasta:
Rolled oats, proving it doesn’t have to be fancy to be whole grain:
And cracked wheat cereal, an alternative to oatmeal, if you like cooked cereals:
There are many more whole grains you can experiment with, including wild rice, buckwheat, bulgur, millet, amaranth, steel-cut oats, spelt, farro, barley, wheat berries… For a comprehensive list, as well as cooking tips and recipes, check out the Whole Grains Council website.
Happy eating, and send us those #fakewholegrain pictures!