Meet Your Ingredients: Whole Grains

Meet Your Ingredients: Whole Grains

Whether whole or ground, grains are a staple of almost every diet and cuisine. From oatmeal and cereal at breakfast to rice or quinoa at dinner, many of us eat grains multiple times throughout the day.

But what are grains actually? And what’s the deal with “pseudocereals”? This guide will give you an overview of what whole grains are, why they’re healthy for us, and how to use them in cooking.

What are Whole Grains?

Whole grains are the whole seeds of a cereal or pseudocereal (we’ll get to the difference between these two nex). In order to be considered a whole grain, it must contain all three parts of the seed: endosperm, germ, and bran.

  • Bran: The bran is the tough outer layer of the grain that is responsible for the darker color of whole grains. It’s rich in antioxidants, B-vitamins, and fiber, and is often sold on its own or added to processed foods as a source of extra fiber.  
  • Endosperm: the largest part of the grain, the endosperm is rich in carbohydrates and protein, with a small amount of vitamins and minerals.
  • Germ: the germ is the smallest, yet the most important part of the seed. The germ is the reproductive part of the seed that can sprout out into a new plant. It’s a concentrated source of many essential nutrients, such as vitamin E (an antioxidant), B-vitamins, phosphorus, thiamin, zinc, and magnesium. It’s also high in healthy fats, which is why proper storage of whole grains is key.

In contrast, refined grains have been stripped of the germ and bran, leaving just the starchy endosperm. As a result, these grains have less fiber, about 25% less protein, and much fewer vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.

Even when manufacturers add back some of these nutrients, those products still don’t contain the same ratio of nutrients or amount of fiber as the whole version. The Whole Grains Council has a great infographic on what’s lost when grains are refined.

Whole grains can be found whole, cracked, split, ground, or milled into flours. However, the healthiest way to eat whole grains is in their whole or cracked forms (we’ll touch on this more later down).

Rolled oats, amaranth, buckwheat, and freekeh

What are Pseudocereals?

Before we move on, let’s quickly touch on the difference between pseudocereals and how they fit into whole grains.

Cereal grains are those which come from the seeds of grasses, such as wheat, oats, millet, rice, barley, sorghum, triticale, and maize (corn). Pseudocereals on the other hand are plants, other than grasses, that also produce seeds are are cooked and consumed similarly to cereal grains.

Pseudocereal seeds are generally gluten-free and contain many of the same benefits as cereal grains, such as protein, fiber, B-vitamins, and other important vitamins and minerals. Many “ancient grains” such as quinoa are technically pseudocereal seeds.

The term “whole grain” encompasses both cereal grains and pseudocereal seeds in their whole forms.

Examples of Whole Grains and PSeudocereals

While there are numerous whole grains, here are some of the ones you may come across. Note that pseudocereals are marked with an asterix.

  • Amaranth*
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat*
  • Bulger
  • Chia Seeds*
  • Corn (yup, not a vegetable)
  • Einkorn
  • Farro
  • Freekeh
  • Kamut
  • Kañiwa*
  • Millet
  • Oats
  • Quinoa*
  • Rice
  • Rye
  • Sorghum
  • Spelt
  • Teff
  • Triticale
  • Wheat
  • Wild rice (surprisingly not technically rice, but an aquatic grass)
Amaranth, buckwheat and freekeh

Health Benefits of Whole Grains

While the exact nutrition composition of whole grains varies by the type of grain, in general all whole grains are an excellent source of fiber, B-vitamins, minerals (especially zinc, magnesium, irion, and manganese), antioxidants, and disease-fighting plant compounds such as sterols and lignans. Whole grains also offer a good amount of protein and healthy fat.

While we won’t get into all the science behind whole grains, briefly they’ve been shown to reduce risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, many forms of cancer, and obesity.

Many also contain gut-friendly prebiotics, which supports a healthy microbiome – something we’re finding is key in whole body and brain health.

As briefly mentioned above, many of these health benefits are studied in whole forms of whole grains. In more processed foods, like crackers and cold breakfast cereals, it’s still best to stick with whole grain options; however, make sure to check the nutrition facts to avoid products that are high in added sugars.

What About Antinutrients?

One of the major arguments against whole grains is that they contain compounds called antinutrients. While click-bate sounding, antinutrients are actual compounds that inhibit the absorption and/or usage of some essential vitamins and minerals.

The key is that these compounds are natural plant compounds found in every plant based food: grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables – they aren’t uniqure to just grains. And while they do lessen the absorption of some nutrients, they don’t block them entirely and there is no evidence that shows eating foods containing these compounds results in nutrient deficiencies.

Furthermore, these antinutrients may actually be the same compounds that give plant-based foods their health benefits, such as protection against chronic disease and some forms of cancer.

However, they can make these foods hard to digest, which may be a problem for those with IBS. To get around this, soaking grains can actually break down these compounds, making them easier to digest.

The other caveat, is that lentils and beans do contain an antinutrient called lectin that can be toxic in high amounts. However, these lectins are broken down when you soak and cook beans and lentils.

So, while antinutrients may sound scary, science doesn’t show any need to avoid foods containing these compounds. In fact the opposite is true as long-term studies have shown decreased risk of diseases and overall longer life in populations that eat high amounts of plant-based foods, including whole grains.

Role of Grains in Cooking and Baking

While whole grains do contain protein and fat, the primary role of whole grains is to provide a health source of carbohydrate, especially fiber.

Putting flours and processed whole grains aside, the most common way to eat whole grains is by simmering them in hot water or broth. While you always want to check cooking instructions on the individual package, a general rule of thumb is 3 parts liquid to 1 part whole grain.

For best flavor, toast the grains before adding the liquid. To do this, heat a pot over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the grains and slightly lower the eat. Toss the grains consistently, either by shaking the pot or using a spoon, for one to two minutes, or until fragrant. At this point, add the water and cook per package directions. Depending on the grain, cook times vary from 10 minutes up to 50 minutes.

Uses for grains include grain bowls, served alongside a protein and vegetable, added to soups and salads, or cooked as a hot breakfast porridge. Some, such as oats, can also be used as a coating for fried chicken or tofu, and others like chia seeds can be added in raw to smoothies or yogurt. Grains can also be toasted and added to granola or soaked and eaten cold as overnight oats or muesli.

Featured Whole Grains

It was hard to choose just four whole grains to spotlight this month, but I decided to go with two that I use frequently and two that are relatively new to me. I also wanted to showcase a variety of textures in order to show just how versatile whole grains really are.

So, this month look out for guides and recipes on the following whole grains:

  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Freekeh
  • Oats

Are you familiar with any of these? I’d love to hear some of your favorite ways to incorporate more whole grains into your daily routines! Leave a comment below or tag @TheHealthyToast_RD on Instagram.

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About Kelli McGrane Headshot

I’m Kelli MS, RD, and my mission is to prove that eating healthier doesn’t have to be complicated or restrictive. Follow along to learn more about food and cooking, with an emphasis on breakfast and sweet treats!

About Kelli McGrane Headshot

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