You often hear healthy guidelines recommend whole grains. Because of the myriad of marketing labels used on food packaging such as “multi grain”, “cracked wheat”, “whole wheat”, it’s not surprising that consumers are confused about this basic food. The FDA defines whole grains as “the intact and unrefined grain whose principal components -- the endosperm, germ and bran -- are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact grain.” In other words, the whole grain of wheat must be ground into flour to make whole wheat flour. And when whole wheat flour is used to make the bread, crackers, tortillas etc. it can legally carry the label “100% whole grain.”
You can also identify whole grain products by noting the number of grams of fiber listed on the Nutrition Facts label. A slice of white bread may have 1 gram of fiber while a slice of whole grain bread will have 3 or more grams. That doesn’t sound like a big difference but, think of it as having triple the fiber. A sandwich of whole grain bread will provide 6 grams of fiber in the meal. A serving of fruit or vegetable will provide 1 or 2 grams. There is no fiber in meat or dairy foods, only in grains, nuts/seeds, vegetables and fruits. A healthy diet includes 30-35 grams of fiber per day. So that whole grain bread or cereal every day becomes a very important part of healthy eating.
The nutritional disparity between whole and refined grains is much more than fiber. When wheat is refined into white flour, the bran and part of the grain called the germ are removed and many vitamins and minerals are lost. Refining removes 92% of the vitamin E; 84% of the magnesium; 73% of the zinc; 71% of the potassium and the list goes on. Eighteen essential nutrients including vitamins, minerals and protein are reduced by levels ranging from 41% to 92% when whole wheat is refined into white flour. Five of those nutrients, 4 vitamins and iron are added back to the refined flour through the process of enrichment. So we took out 18 nutrients and put back 5 of them so we could make a pretty white flour. What’s wrong with this picture? The bottom line is that refined grains and any foods made with white flour are not the whole package and are just not as nutritious as whole grains.
The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that at least half of our grains be whole grains. This allows room for some refined grains such as pasta, crackers and an occasional cookie. A healthy dietary pattern includes 6 servings per day from the grain group. Serving sizes are smaller than you think. A serving is 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of cereal or 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta. Consumers should also look to see that other grains such as barley, oats, rice or corn are listed in the ingredients as whole.
So does this mean I can eat a healthy sandwich? You bet! Eating good bread is part of a healthy eating pattern. Start with 100% whole grain bread, choose lean meat, go easy on the mayo, (mustard is calorie free) and load on the veggies! Oh… and did I say pass on the fries and soda?
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with St. Luke’s Health. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service, The Polk Education Center and the City of Lufkin, Tim Scallon hosts the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations. The popular cooking show celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 62 cities and online at https://www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information.