Iron is an essential part of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood to all of the cells in the body. Iron comes from both animal foods (called heme iron) and plant foods (called non-heme iron). Heme iron is more readily absorbed by the body, but absorption of non-heme iron can be enhanced by eating foods rich in vitamin C along with foods rich in non-heme iron. Whole and enriched refined grain products are major sources of non-heme iron in American diets.
Consuming inadequate iron can lead to iron-deficiency anemia, which causes fatigue and weakness. Many teenage girls and women in their childbearing years could benefit from eating more good food sources of iron. Two ways to absorb more iron from whole grains are to eat them with meat and to eat them with foods rich in vitamin C, such as bell peppers, cantaloupe, broccoli, or citrus fruits.
Whole grains are sources of magnesium and selenium. Magnesium is a mineral used in building bones and releasing energy from muscles. Selenium protects cells from oxidation. It is also important for a healthy immune system.
To be sure the products you are buying contain whole grains, take some time to read their labels carefully. If the package displays the words “whole grain,” it must contain at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving, which is considered half a serving of whole grains. If a product label says “100% whole grain,” it must contain at least 16 grams of whole grain per serving, which is one serving of whole grains.
Foods that are labeled with the words “multi-grain,” “stone-ground,” “100% wheat,” “cracked wheat,” “seven-grain,” or “bran” are usually not whole-grain products. If a whole-grain ingredient is not listed first on a product’s ingredients list, the item may contain only a small amount of whole grains or none at all.
Don’t let the color of an item fool you. Just because a grain product is brown doesn’t mean it is made from whole grains. Ingredients such as molasses can be added to darken products that are made from primarily refined grains. It is best to check the ingredients list to see if a food item contains whole grains. Also check the % Daily Value (%DV) for fiber on the Nutrition Facts panel of the label. The higher the %DV for fiber, the greater the likelihood that there’s whole grain in the product.
By law, ingredients lists must list ingredients in descending order by weight. That’s to say, the first ingredient in the list is the one the product contains most of, and the last ingredient in the list is the one the product contains least of. As you read the ingredients list, therefore, note where added sugars such as sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, and molasses fall in the list. The closer they are to the beginning of the list, the more calories from sugar a food contains and the greater the chance the food is made primarily of refined ingredients. For a list of grains and grain products to keep an eye out for, see “Identifying Whole Grains.”
Whole-grain “stamps” of approval
One way to confirm that a food item contains whole grain—and to determine how much—is to look for the Whole Grains Council stamp of approval. The Whole Grains Council, which is backed by the Food and Drug Administration, has designed two logos, both of which resemble postage stamps, to identify foods that have a particular amount of whole grains in them.
One of the logos is for foods labeled “whole grain,” and it indicates that the food contains at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving. The other is for foods labeled “100% whole grain,” and it indicates that the food contains only whole grains and has at least 16 grams or more per serving.