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March 15-21, 2006

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The Whole-Grain Truth

Everything you always wanted to know about whole grains but were afraid to ask

By Sara Bir

Whole grains! Whole grains! After a million press releases and news items about the USDA's 2005 dietary guidelines for Americans suggesting we eat three or more servings of whole grains a day, perhaps we are getting the idea that a diet rich in whole grains is quite beneficial to our health. Every time I open up a cooking magazine or a newspaper's food section, there's an article about whole-grain cookery espousing the virtues of millet, barley and their whole-grain brethren.

But I'm confused. Sure, whole grains add variety of texture and flavor to meals, but I get the sense that the concept is oversimplified in some way. Which grains are whole grains? How much whole grain makes up one serving, anyway? Are those whole-grain pretzel sticks that I bought at the convenience store the other day really whole-grain? And what's up with this white whole-wheat flour that they're sneaking into Wonder Bread these days?

And beyond confused, I'm conflicted. I love potatoes and white bread. And pasta and sugar cookies. I will not give these things up, so they are going to have to coexist in the same pantry with my whole grains. Does this mean I will die a long, terrible death?

To placate the nitpicky neuroses that sprouted from my whole-grain issues, I decided to cut to the chase and ask an expert. Sonoma County's own Jill Nussinow is a registered dietician and has a master's degree in dietetics and nutrition. Jill teaches cooking classes and is the author of The Veggie Queen: Vegetables Get the Royal Treatment. She's also a vegetarian, so if anyone knows how to create a balanced, nutrient-rich diet seizing the positive aspects of whole grains, she's the lady.

But before I start terrorizing Jill with questions, let's cover a few whole-grain basics. Foremost, why are they good for you, and why has the government placed such an emphasis on its citizens eating whole grains as part of their daily routine? Whole grains contain disease-fighting phytochemicals and antioxidants, as can fruits and vegetables, but whole grains can contain even more. Research suggests that whole grains reduce risks of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity. So the more whole grains we eat, the more nutrition we get, the healthier we grow and the less we burden our already sorry healthcare system.

And now for the fun part—the answers to dark thoughts lurking in the backs of minds across the country!

Sara Bir: In order to be healthy, do I have to give up white flour, white rice, and potatoes completely?

Jill Nussinow: You really want to choose whole grains most often. An occasional flour tortilla, piece of sourdough bread or bowl of basmati rice is fine. But you could easily choose sprouted grain tortillas, whole-grain bread or brown rice, and it would be delicious after you get used to eating more fiber.

I'm confused about what grains are whole grains—are foods like instant oatmeal and pearled barley and de-germed cornmeal half-whole grains? Can there be such a thing as partial whole grains?

True whole grains are the least processed, such as whole oat groats, whole barley and polenta cornmeal. But if as a first step (or the only one) you choose those [grains] that you mentioned, that is fine. Steel-cut oats are more nutritious than instant oatmeal. Regular oats are less processed than the instant, too. I eat a cereal by Bob's Red Mill called Right Stuff that contains six grains and flax. They are not whole, but it is quite delicious when I make it with cinnamon, vanilla, raisins and some maple syrup, and they are filled with fiber and nutrition.

Sometimes just knowing the products that are available can help people transition to whole grains, and sometimes they just aren't interested. White-bread people may need a transitional step to move toward true whole grains. But if they taste great, whole grains will get eaten.

What if I eat tons of leafy green veggies and tasty legumes every day, but I don't have my recommended, say, five servings of whole grain. Am I doomed?

"Doomed" is when you eat processed food all day long and don't eat any whole grains—like the standard American diet. Eating leafy green veggies and legumes is great, but whole grains contain other and different essential nutrients, especially B vitamins, fiber and minerals.

If one switches from white products to whole grain, it is often easy to get five servings. If I have my hot cereal in the morning, I am likely to have one cup, which is two servings. If I have a sandwich for lunch on whole-grain bread such as that from Alvarado Street Bakery, that's two more servings. And if I have a cup of brown rice or quinoa for dinner, that's two more servings. Since most people like carbohydrates, it's usually easy to get five servings.

Regardless of the benefits that whole grains can impart to a varied diet, do you suspect that the government/media emphasis will be on another aspect of nutrition in a year or two? The emphasis for a while was on lowering fat intake, then on lowering carb intake. Do you think the current buzz on whole grains will fade out in a few seasons? Or will it quietly assimilate into our lifestyles and eating habits?

I can only hope that the next trend is what people intuitively know, which is eating delicious food in moderation. I don't honestly see that happening. We've done the low-carb, high-protein, low-fat, etc. As for the whole grains, I think for people to incorporate more whole grains into their diets, whole grains will have to remain in the news and therefore on people's minds.

So that's that. We can enjoy gnocchi, macaroni and Panko-crusted cutlets on occasion without going to hell, and we don't have to plan out menus months in advance just to get our recommended servings of whole grains. All it takes is a minor lifestyle change! This whole whole-grain thing is actually quite reasonable. What a relief.

Full Nut

Whole-Grain Tips and Truths

What is one serving, anyway? The USDA guidelines define a serving as any of the following amounts for products where all the grain ingredients are whole grains: 1/2 cup cooked rice, bulgur, pasta or cooked cereal; 1 ounce dry pasta, rice or other dry grain; 1 slice bread; 1 small muffin; 1 cup ready-to-eat cereal flakes. If you're eating a food that contains a mixture of refined and whole grains, keep in mind that you won't be getting a full serving of whole grains.

Drink water. "Eating a lot of fiber without adding more water can cause some intestinal disturbance," says Nussinow. "I describe it as getting mud into a pipe and then having it get dry. It will get stuck. So you need to flush water through to get things moving again."

Whole grain does not mean zero flavor. Ah, those well-meaning natural cookbooks of the '70s! How much good and damage they have wrought. Dishes featuring whole grains can be the opposite of bland, tough and "hippie." Plenty of wonderful recipes draw out the best attributes of individual whole grains. And ingredients such as cheese, oils, butter and fresh herbs are by no means barred in whole-grain cookery.

Be skeptical of "whole grain" varieties of processed foods. A new albino wheat variety is allowing brands like Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Wonder Bread to create whole-grain products with color and texture remarkably similar to their refined-flour counterparts. But, says Nussinow, "if you read the packaging you will see that there is not much more fiber than the original product. People will be missing the point, which is that it is still best to eat more unprocessed foods. They will think that eating "whole grain" you-name-the-cereal will contribute to their health. I have some whole grain porridge for breakfast or a bowl of noninstant and nonflavored oatmeal instead of your expensive processed cereal. Your pocketbook and your body win."

Two cups of popped popcorn is one serving of whole grain. You can even get your whole grains at the movies—hooray!—but you might want to skip that fake butter topping.

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