The whole grain health halo

photo: jeffreyw via Flickr

Nothing screams “Health Halo!” quite like whole grains.  Even the National School Lunch program is totally on board with whole grains — the new regulations call for all grain-based foods served at breakfast or lunch to be made with at least 51% whole grain content.  Kids will be chowing down on so-called whole grain rich spaghetti, pizza crust, bread, rolls, and cereals.  Or not.  Serving those foods is one thing; kids eating them is another.

Nevertheless, the message to “eat whole grains” is everywhere, although apparently it’s widely ignored.  A study published almost 2 years ago found that less than 5% of Americans were eating the recommended 3 servings of whole grains/day.  The few people who do eat that many whole grain foods have better diets in general, but is it the whole grains making it better?  Or is it that people who pay attention to whole grains are paying attention to all healthier choices?  It’s hard to imagine adding whole grains to a junky processed diet full of soft drinks and snack foods and calling it healthy.

There are certainly plenty of reasons to include whole grain foods in your diet.  These foods contain all the natural fiber present in the grain.  They are naturally higher in various vitamins and minerals than refined grain products.  However, refined grain foods, including white flour, have certain B vitamins and iron added back.  It’s kind of like bait and switch: take out a dozen or more vitamins and minerals during the refining process, and then add back 6 or so and brag that the food is fortified.  Potassium, zinc, copper, magnesium, manganese, vitamin E, choline and more are all much lower in refined white flour compared to whole grain flour.  But since those aren’t required to be listed on the Nutrition Facts label, you wouldn’t know they were all lower.

So there’s no arguing whole grains are healthier than refined versions.  But it’s not always the case that eating refined grains leads to poor health.  In Asian countries, where white rice rules, people are generally healthier and thinner.  Their diets are lower in sugar and fat, higher in vegetables and in some cases, much higher in omega-3 fats.  So despite relying mostly on refined grains (white rice rather than brown rice), people are healthier and thinner.  In France, where wonderful bread make typically with white flour is the norm at meals, people are thinner and healthier.  Same in Italy, where pasta is typically made with white flour.

In light of these real life examples, the current hysteria over whole grains seems pretty strange.  Honestly, I probably don’t eat the requisite 3 servings of whole grains/day.  I make a lot of bread, and it’s definitely not 100% whole grain, not even the 51% that meets the ‘whole grain rich’ definition.  I prefer to follow the French or Asian culinary paths: lots of vegetables and fruit, and whole grains when they make sense.  But not the attempted force feeding of whole grains to an uninterested population.  The growth of “multigrain” label claims is a direct result of this.  ‘Multigrain’ is pretty meaningless, but it sounds healthy and makes consumers feel better about the bread or cereal they purchase.

Truly: adding a whole wheat bun to your cheeseburger/fries/soda pop lunch isn’t going to make much of a difference to your health.  My advice: start with lots of vegetables and fruit.  Use whole grain foods when they make sense, or when you want to try something new: brown rice, whole grain pasta, great whole wheat bread, other cooked whole grains, real whole grain cereals (not “multigrain”).

For more information on whole grains and whole grain labeling: Whole Grains Council

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