One of the most striking changes to the new guidelines recently issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is its increased emphasis on whole grains. The scientific guidelines upon which the USDA based its advice indicate that ?daily intake of three or more servings of whole grains per day is recommended, preferably by substituting whole grains for refined grains.? Whole grains have become the darlings of the diet world, rating low on the glycemic index and touted as good carbs.
A whole grain is composed of its outside, called the hull or the bran; the endosperm, which is the middle; and the germ, at the heart of the grain. The refining process generally removes the hull and the germ, leaving only the endosperm. ?What we end up eating is the starchy middle, which has the most carbohydrates and the fewest vitamins and minerals,? says chef and cookbook author Deborah Madison in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Broadway, 1997). Processed grains cook faster than whole grains, a plus in the busy 21st century, but with more attention being paid to the health benefits of whole grains, and organizations like Slow Food taking root, taking time to cook is becoming stylish
The nutrients that get lost in the refining process include many of the B vitamins, essential fatty acids such as omega-3s, and fiber itself. Often vitamins are added back in after the processing, but to many health professionals that?s not OK. ?[Food] producers can completely process the wheat into white flour, then add back the bran and call it whole grain bread,? says Amy Lanou, Ph.D., nutrition director for the Physician?s Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C. ?That?s not what we?re looking for. The fiber gets lost, and the grain goes from a complex carbohydrate to a simple one and gets into the bloodstream too quickly.? A slowly absorbed food releases energy over time, keeps one feeling fuller longer and doesn?t create spikes in the blood-sugar level.
A bread loaf must list ?whole wheat flour? among its ingredients if it claims to be whole grain. ?If it says wheat flour, it?s really white,? says Santa Cruz, Calif.-based nutritionist Ramona Richard. When buying grains in bulk, it?s easy enough to train your eye to determine whether the grain is still whole. ?One way you can tell a whole grain is that it still looks like a grain,? says Lanou. ?Whole oats to rolled oats to quick oats look really different from each other. Quick oats are sliced to release the carbohydrates quickly.?
One item in whole grains that nutritionists do recommend losing is phytic acid, a mineral inhibitor. According to Sally Fallon in Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct and Diet Dictocrats (New Trends Publishing, 1999), ?Untreated phytic acid can combine with calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and especially zinc in the intestinal tract and block their absorption.? The good news, however, is that ?soaking [grains] removes the phytic acid and makes the food easier to digest,? says Fern Leaf, a Berkeley, Calif.-based nutritionist.
The wheat family
Other healthful members of the wheat family include cracked wheat, bulgur and the wheat berry, which, while they may have a small amount of their hull or bran removed, offer many nutrients. Gaining popularity are wheats referred to as ancient grains: farro, spelt and kamut—the progenitors of today?s wheat. Urban legend has it that kamut was brought to North America after a World War II airman found it in an Egyptian tomb.
According to Annie Somerville, executive chef at Greens, a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, ?The Italians were ahead of the curve on this one; they got wind of [farro] four or five years ago,? and rediscovered its benefits. Somerville likes to use it in salads as well as soups. ?Barley tends to give off starch and thicken the soup. Farro doesn?t do that. And it?s great in salads—farro with lemon, parsley, scallions, peppers and tomato makes a great tabouli in the summer.?
Author Madison likes cooking with farro, she says. ?It doesn?t have the gluten that wheat does.? ?The four grains that have gluten are rye, wheat, oats and barley,? says nutritionist Richard. Gluten is not a problem unless you happen to be allergic to it. In fact, gluten is rich in protein. (Often a staple of vegetarian cooking, pure wheat gluten is also known as seitan.)
People with digestive problems are often advised to eliminate wheat or gluten. For them, there are whole grains without gluten as well as flours and breads made from nonglutinous grains. Buckwheat, millet and rice have no gluten; neither do spelt, teff and kamut, which are often made into breads. ?Spelt is an alternative [to wheat]; people with allergies to wheat prefer it,? says Linda Trunzo, bulk buyer and president of Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco. Leslie Cerier, author of the forthcoming Going Wild in the Kitchen (Square One Publishers), likes cooking with teff as a wheat alternative. ?Because it has a gelatinous texture like millet, it is cuttable when it cools, so it makes a great pie crust.?
Other grains to choose from
Other grains that can be enjoyed in their whole state are corn, brown rice, amaranth and quinoa. Corn, of course, can be eaten as a vegetable, and cornmeal, which still contains its germ, is quite nutritious. Brown rice and barley, probably the most familiar of this group, are sometimes pearled, which means the hull has been either partially or completely removed. These grains nevertheless offer a great deal of nutrients.
Buckwheat, probably best known as kasha, is actually a fruit, but since its properties are grain-like, cooks treat it as such. It too can yield non-glutinous flour, useful for making buckwheat pancakes or Japanese soba noodles, again offering an alternative to wheat-based foods.
Millet comes from Africa, and while it looks like couscous (not a whole grain, but actually a form of pasta), it behaves differently when cooked; amaranth is a South American grain high in protein; quinoa also hails from South America. ?Quinoa might be our most popular grain,? says Rainbow Grocery?s Trunzo. ?It?s high in protein as well.? In fact, quinoa is actually a seed, not a grain, although it too is treated like one.
A grain of truth
Health and cooking experts agree that the field of grains is a large and sometimes confusing one. As Madison says, ?If people want to know about grains and enjoy them, they need to inform themselves.?
Anita Malnig is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 9/p. 72, 74