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College of Human Ecology

K-State Specialist: Whole-grain foods can offer health benefits

Friday, March 23, 2007

MANHATTAN, Kan. - Consumers who grow up eating highly refined grain products may shy away from choosing whole-grain products recommended for health, said Mary Meck Higgins, Kansas State University Research and Extension nutrition specialist.

Choosing whole-grain foods need not mean sacrificing food quality or flavor, she said.

Whole-grain food products are naturally flavorful - and sweet, said Higgins, who answered frequently asked questions about choosing whole-grain foods and incorporating them into meals, snacks, weight management and health programs:

Q: What constitutes a whole-grain food product?

A: The term "whole grain" defines a grain food product that contains all three parts of the grain: the bran, germ and endosperm (100 percent whole-wheat, for example).

Most of the nutrients in grains are found in the germ and in the bran, which is the outer covering on the whole grain kernel. If the germ and bran are removed (which happens during the processing of more refined grain food products), 25 to 90 percent of the health-promoting substances such as phyto (plant-based) chemicals, vitamins, minerals and fiber are removed.

Q: What whole grains are most common in food products on store shelves?

A: Whole-wheat, oats, popcorn, and brown or wild rice will be familiar to many people. Whole grains such as buckwheat (or kasha), cracked wheat (also called bulgur), whole rye, whole-grain cornmeal, whole-grain barley, quinoa, amaranth, millet, spelt and triticale may not be as easy to find.

Q: Is one whole grain better - or more healthful - than another?

A: No. Kansas is known as the wheat state. Fresh, high-quality whole-wheat flours and products are readily available, but other whole grains are also healthful. In general, eating moderate portions of a variety of foods - including whole grains along with fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and lean meats, fish and poultry, nuts and cooked dry beans - is recommended to derive health benefits from the variety of nutrients found in foods.

Eating a variety of health-promoting whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of bowel disorders, some cancers, heart disease and stroke (by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, for example), obesity and type 2 diabetes (which was formerly thought to be an adult-onset disease that now also is occurring in children and teens).

Q: Are there other advantages to eating whole grains?

A: Yes. Whole grains are complex carbohydrates, which break down gradually to provide long-lasting energy, while also contributing to satiety - feeling satisfied, rather than hungry. This means that eating a breakfast that includes whole-wheat cereal, oatmeal, whole-wheat toast or bagel, for example, can provide long-lasting energy for morning activities.

Q: Is there a best way to identify a whole-grain food product?

A: Allow shopping time to read food labels. Look for breads, cereals, flours, pastas, side dishes, and snacks where whole grains are the primary ingredient, which typically is listed first. For instance, look for foods where "whole oats" or "whole wheat" or "whole (name of grain) is the first ingredient.

Wheat flour (another name for refined white flour) is not the same as whole-wheat flour. Labels such as or "multi-grain" or "seven grain" do not necessarily describe health-promoting whole-grain products, either. Some foods advertise that they are "made with whole grain," but the primary ingredient is refined flour. To be sure, check the ingredient list (on the food label) to make sure the whole grain is listed first.

Q: Are all foods containing whole grains a healthful choice?

A: No. Processing and adding sugar or other sweeteners and product stabilizers to extend shelf life can reduce a food´s health-promoting qualities. Other food preparation factors, such as drenching popcorn with butter and salt or spreading sugary jelly or jam over 100 percent whole-wheat toast, depend on the individual.

Q: As a nutrition specialist, do you have recommendations for adding whole grains to meals and snacks?

A: If you´re not in the habit of eating whole-grain foods, add them gradually. Adding whole-grain crackers to a snack plate or mixing cereals, such as a whole-grain cereal with a family favorite that may not be 100 percent whole grain, or choosing to mix tri-color pasta with whole-wheat pasta, can introduce health-promoting whole-grains into meals and snacks.

Adding too many complex carbohydrates (and fiber) at one time may cause a tummy ache. It´s a good idea to increase fluids, particularly water, to aid digestion.

Try to make at least half of your grain foods whole grain: Most adults are advised to eat three to five servings of whole grains each day.

More information about choosing foods that contribute to health is available at K-State Research and Extension offices. Many free resources about whole grains are available from the Extension Human Nutrition Web site: www.oznet.ksu.edu/humannutrition/wholegrains.htm.

K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus in Manhattan.

Story by:
Nancy Peterson
K-State Research and Extension

This article was posted on Friday, March 23, 2007, and is filed under College News, Food, Nutrition, Dietetics and Health.