Did you ever wonder why grains received top-billing (or would it be bottom-billing?) in the USDA’s food pyramid? Pure and simply, grains are great foods. Grains are also the world’s most plentiful food and enjoy first place in the diet of nearly every culture, except perhaps fish-loving Eskimos.
What makes grains so good? Around two-thirds of the calories in grains come from complex carbohydrates. This is right in line with current dietary recommendations that 60 to 65 percent of daily calories should come from carbohydrates. Grains are also a rich source of protein. In most cultures, except beef-eating Westerners, most of the protein in peoples’ diets come from grains. (In our culture, it’s the cattle who get their protein from grains.) Yet, the body can’t live on grains alone. Most are not complete proteins, since they are missing one or more of the essential amino acids, usually lysine. No problem. Who eats dry cereal anyway? Mixing grains with dairy, legumes, or just about any other protein source completes the minimal amino acid deficiency of some grains. Also, grains are great sources of: fiber, zinc, iron, folic acid, minerals, and B-vitamins. And there’s more great news about grains-they’re naturally low in fat.
Even before the grain-heavy new food pyramid was put out by the USDA, grains were becoming the “in” food, and new names of new grains are cropping up all the time. While all grains are nutritious, some are more nutritious than others.
Wonderful wheat. In American diets, wheat is the top grain. Not only is it the most plentiful – the wheat belt stretches over the middle of the United States and we export as much as we consume – it’s one of the most versatile grains. What gives wheat its unique baking value is the protein gluten, the elastic substance that sticks together, allowing bread to rise and pasta to hold its shape during cooking.
Wheats are rated according to the “hardness” of the grain, which is determined by the amount of gluten it contains. Harder wheat have more gluten, and therefore a higher protein-to- carbohydrate ratio, so they are used in foods that need to retain their shape and have a firmer texture, such as bread and pasta. Softer wheats, such as pastry flour, are used in pastries and pie crusts. “All purpose” flour is a blend of hard and soft wheats. Here are some wheat terms you may not be familiar with:
- The wheat bran is the outer layer of the wheat kernel that covers the seed inside. It is removed when wheat is refined into white flour. Bran is the part of the wheat kernel that is highest in fiber, primarily the insoluble type, which has been shown to lower the risk of colon cancer. Bran is also the part of the wheat plant that contains most of the minerals and vitamins.
- The wheat germ is the nutrient-dense embryo of the wheat plant, which is power-packed with protein, minerals, iron, and contains most of what little fat there is in the wheat plant. (This is why processors like to remove it from flour, as it shortens the shelf life.) Wheat germ is often used as a dietary supplement because it is rich in iron, B- vitamins, vitamin E, and the antioxidant selenium.
- The endosperm is the largest part of the wheat kernel and the least nutrient-dense. Yet, because by weight the endosperm is about 80 percent of the whole wheat kernel, it contains the greatest amount of proteins and carbohydrates.
- Cracked wheat starts with the whole kernel of hard varieties of wheat. The kernels are cracked into small pieces and add a crunchy texture when added to bread or cereal. Or, you can cook cracked wheat in water like rice.
- Wheat berries are the whole kernels of wheat. They take longer to cook than the cracked variety. When cooked they can be eaten like rice or added to bread dough.
- Bulgur wheat is a form of cracked wheat. The whole wheat kernels are cooked, dried, and cracked into a coarse grain that is usually used in cooked cereal, pilaf, or a favorite Middle Eastern grain dish, tabbouleh.
Brown bread is not always more nutritious than white. In fact, the brown color is often just a marketing gimmick, just white bread with coloring added (like a fake tan). To tell if a brown bread is really more nutritious, read the label. If the first ingredient is “whole wheat,” this is a healthy food. If it says “bleached” or “enriched” flour, or just wheat flour, it is just colored white bread. Some labels will say only “wheat flour,” which is 75 percent white and 25 percent whole wheat. Always check the label rather than going by color.
- Spelt is a high-quality European whole wheat.
- Wheat grass means the wheatgerm has been allowed to grow, or germinate. Whether or not sprouted wheatgerm is more nutritious than an unsprouted wheatgerm is uncertain. During the sprouting process, much of the fat and carbohydrates in the seed is used for growth. The sprout still contains a lot of protein and, possibly, an increased amount of vitamins and minerals. The nutritional benefits depend upon eating a large volume of the sprouts, since they are now mostly water rather than protein by weight.
Weigh Your Bread
As a general guide, the heavier the bread the more nutrition it contains. When shopping, compare breads by holding a loaf in each hand. The loaf that weighs more is more loaded with nutrients. Bread made with whole wheat flour is naturally heavier, firmer, and more nutrient-dense than airy white bread.
- Stone-ground whole wheat is ground the old-fashioned way – between rotating stones – so that the bran, germ, and endosperm remain together. Wheat purists believe that stone-grinding produces a more nutritious flour than the conventional high-speed roller-milling, which, they claim, may overheat the grain and cause deterioration of the nutrients. Stone-ground flour usually needs to be refrigerated once opened, since the oil released during grinding makes it spoil more quickly. It’s best to store any kind of whole grain flour in the refrigerator if you won’t be using it up within a month or two. Depending on the heat produced during milling, nutritionally, stone-ground and roller-milled flour should be about the same.