Chances are you’ve heard, over and over again, that choosing whole grains over processed grains is a healthful move. You may, however, be unsure how to apply this advice to your everyday shopping. Navigating the grocery store and deciding which products made from grains are good choices, from among the thousands on the shelves, can be overwhelming. Furthermore, the products that are right for you may not be right for someone else; the best choices depend on your health goals, nutrition needs, and personal preferences.
Even though the landscape may be confusing, there are good reasons to make an effort to understand it; as part of a healthy diet, whole grains can help prevent heart disease and certain types of cancer, and they may aid in both blood glucose and weight control. This article describes what whole grains are, what they can do for you, and what to look for at the grocery store.
Types of grains
Grains come in many different types and forms. Types of grains found at most grocery stores include wheat, rye, oats, rice, barley, and corn. Less commonly seen grains are amaranth, kamut, millet, quinoa, and spelt. Wheat is by far the most commonly consumed grain in the United States, with approximately three-fourths of grain products made from wheat.
Whole grains, such as brown rice or steel-cut oats, contain the bran, germ, and endosperm of the grain seed. Refined grains, such as white rice and all-purpose flour, typically have the bran and germ removed during the milling process. Refining the grain gives it a smoother texture and increases its shelf life, but it removes much of the grain’s fiber and vitamin and mineral content.
Grains are a source of carbohydrate, and nearly all carbohydrates are broken down by the body into glucose. This means that eating grains can raise your blood glucose level. However, some whole grains contain enough soluble fiber to slow digestion of the carbohydrate, resulting in a slower, steadier release of glucose into the bloodstream. Soluble fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like substance in the digestive tract. Whole-grain oats and barley are good sources of soluble fiber, as are beans, peas, and apples.
The other type of fiber, insoluble fiber, remains solid in the digestive tract and therefore does little to slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream. Whole wheat is a good source of insoluble but not soluble fiber, which explains why whole wheat bread tends to raise blood glucose levels just as much as white bread. However, the insoluble fiber found in whole wheat, whole rye, and wild rice can help you feel full longer and improve bowel regularity. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) makes no distinction between soluble and insoluble fiber in its dietary recommendations, and most products list only total fiber on their Nutrition Facts label. The FDA recommends consuming at least 25 grams of fiber each day, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
Fiber is not the only important nutrient that whole grains provide. Whole wheat, rye, barley, oats, and wild rice are good sources (providing 10% or more of the recommended daily value) of magnesium, phosphorus, and niacin. Brown rice is a good source of magnesium and phosphorus. Getting enough of these essential nutrients may help prevent certain diseases, possibly explaining some of the proven health benefits of whole grains discussed in the next section. These nutrients may also support an overall feeling of well-being, although this is difficult to prove in a study.
Health benefits of whole grains
Choosing whole grains over refined grains has many health benefits. A large study at the University of Minnesota found a lower mortality rate in men and women who consumed whole-grain bread than in those who consumed white bread. This analysis took factors such as age, smoking habits, weight, and blood pressure and cholesterol levels into consideration. Another large study of middle-aged and older male physicians found that those who consumed a whole-grain breakfast cereal experienced a lower rate of both overall mortality and death from heart disease, compared with those who consumed a refined-grain cereal for breakfast.
In large studies of both men and women by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers found that consumption of whole grains is associated with a reduced risk of small intestine and colon cancer. Also, in a large study of men, eating whole rather than refined grains was found to lower the risk of pancreatic cancer.
If avoiding heart disease, cancer, or death isn’t enough motivation to choose whole grains, here’s something else to consider: weight gain. A study at Harvard Medical School that looked at 74,000 female nurses over a 12-year period found that those who consumed the most whole grains had less weight gain than those who consumed the most refined grains.
Finding whole grains
Figuring out the whole-grain content of a product often takes a bit of detective work. Many products that advertise their whole-grain content are not 100% whole grain. You may see terms such as “multigrain,” “100% wheat,” or “cracked wheat” on the front of a package. These terms do not mean that a product is 100% whole grain or even that it contains any whole grain at all.
So where should you start? All packaged products have a Nutrition Facts panel on the label and an ingredients list. Looking at both of these sections can help you figure out how much whole grain a product contains and whether the product is a healthful choice. The ingredients list is ordered, by weight, from the most plentiful to the least plentiful ingredient in the product. If the list starts with the word “whole” followed by the name of a grain, then the product is most likely a good source of whole grain. For example, a box of oatmeal may have “whole oats” as the first ingredient, indicating that this is the predominant ingredient by weight. Products whose ingredients lists begin with “enriched flour” or “wheat flour” are most likely not good sources of whole grains, since both of these terms indicate refined white flour.
The Whole Grains Council has created a “stamp” symbol for the packages of products that contain whole grains, to make it easier for shoppers to find them. However, not all whole-grain products have this symbol; food companies must join the Whole Grains Council and follow its rules to display it. Stamped products must contain at least half a serving, or 8 grams, of whole grains in each serving of the product. A full serving of whole grains is considered to be 16 grams, which is the equivalent of about two tablespoons of whole-wheat flour, half of a whole-grain English muffin, or two-thirds of a cup of Cheerios.
Products with the Whole Grain Stamp are not necessarily healthy choices, since some may contain too much added fat, sugar, or sodium. The Nutrition Facts label can help you choose whole-grain products that have healthy levels of these nutrients. In general, look for items with a maximum of 2 grams of saturated fat and 250 milligrams of sodium, along with at least 2 grams of fiber per serving.
In addition to nutrition, two factors that pretty much all shoppers consider are taste and appeal. Some people find the coarser texture and brownish color of whole-grain foods less appealing than the texture and color of their refined-grain counterparts. But if you can find a few whole-grain items that are acceptable and taste good to you, you’ve won the battle. Remember, too, that your tastes may change as you incorporate more whole-grain foods into your diet, so that products you once found off-putting may begin to seem “normal” or even preferable to refined products.
Here is some background on several different categories of whole-grain foods available in your grocery store. These categories correspond to those in the chart that follows this text, which lists some of the healthier choices offered by national brands.
Bread, muffins, and rolls. The bread aisle in most grocery stores can be confusing. You can find “light” bread, whole wheat white bread, thin bagels, high-fiber English muffins, and many other specialty items in addition to the usual whole wheat and white offerings.
There are many varieties of whole-grain bread products, some containing whole wheat, and some with rye or oats as ingredients. Lower-carbohydrate, or “light,” varieties of breads tend to contain more air or to be sliced thinner than normal to reduce their calorie and carbohydrate content. Whole-wheat white bread may be a good choice for people who only like white bread. In this type of bread, the bran of the variety of wheat used is lighter in color, making the product look more like regular white bread.
Be sure to check out the serving size on the Nutrition Facts panel because anywhere from one to three slices of bread can be considered one serving.
Hot and cold cereal. The offerings in the cereal aisle have ingredients lists that range from mostly whole grains to the typical makeup of a cookie. Serving sizes indicated on the Nutrition Facts panel vary somewhat but are generally between 1/2 cup and 1 cup. Most cereals have some added sugar, and some varieties contain natural sugar from fruit or milk. The grams of sugar listed on the Nutrition Facts panel include both added and natural sugar, so it’s best to look at the ingredients list to see if added sugar is near the beginning of the list. You can always add an artificial sweeter, nuts, or fruit to cereal to boost its flavor.
Snack bars. Cereal bars or snack bars are handy for eating on the go. They can be a good source of whole grains and healthy, unsaturated fat, but look carefully at the label; some of them contain as much sugar and fat as a candy bar.
Rice. Refined rice has the germ and bran removed and is usually white in color. Whole-grain rice can be brown, black, purple, or red. Converted, or parboiled, rice has been soaked and steamed before the removal of the bran, resulting in more nutrients and a firmer texture than regular white rice as well as a shorter cooking time. Whole-grain, or brown, rice is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals but not of dietary fiber. Wild rice, which is a type of grass and not directly related to rice, is rich in fiber. Most brown-colored rice on the shelf is whole-grain. Flavored rice dishes tend to be high in sodium; check the label before buying them.
Pasta and noodles. Most “regular” pasta, regardless of its shape and size, is made from 100% refined durum wheat. The standard serving size for pasta is 2 ounces, uncooked, making it easy to compare one variety with another. Whole-grain pasta has increased in popularity over the last few years and is usually made from whole wheat; brown-rice pasta also exists but is less widely available. There are also varieties of pasta that, while not whole grain, have added ingredients such as plant fiber, flaxseed, or lentil flour to boost their fiber and nutrient content.
Corn products. Most corn sold at the grocery store is whole grain. Corn that is canned, frozen, or fresh on the cob is usually considered a vegetable. Popcorn, cornmeal, and products made from dried, ground corn, such as tortillas, are considered grain products. To make sure that you are getting whole-grain corn when buying cornmeal, grits, or other products made from dried, ground corn, look at the ingredients list, and avoid items that contain “degerminated” corn.
Choose with care
The table lists products offered by national brands that are good sources of whole grains and overall healthy choices. It is not a complete list, and you might find products from local or regional brands at your grocery store that are just as healthy. Look at the ingredients list and Nutrition Facts panel on the label of any product that is not familiar to you, and compare it with similar products listed in the table to see if it is a good choice.
By choosing whole grains as part of an overall healthy diet, you may improve your blood glucose control and bowel regularity, as well as lower your risk of heart disease, weight gain, and cancer.