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January 1999 Issue
Whole Grains: The Stuff of Life
by Michael Fick
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This issue of Seasoned Cooking emphasizes soup, and what's soup without bread? Chunky soup and a stack of whole grain bread can make a healthy, wonderful main meal. Right up there with vegetables and fruit, whole grain foods are about as healthy as food gets. Whether in bread, cereal, pasta, pancakes, or ice cream, whole grains are a major branch of the stuff of life.

But unless you are a food label disciple -- as we should be -- most of the bread, cereal, rice, and pasta you eat is ~s~h~u~d~d~e~r~ White Bread.

All that "Wheat", "12-Grain", "Whole Wheat", "Cornbread", and "Grandma's Whole-Grain Hearth-Baked Health-Freak Nuts'n'Berries'n'Oatmeal'n'Fiber'n'Wheat'n'Bark Tree-Huggers' bread" we find in bakeries and supermarkets? Unless its first ingredient is exactly "whole grain something", and sometimes even then, it's White Bread. i.e., it's complex sugars manufactured from grain. Even if it's been colored tan or brown to deceive us, it's still White Bread. It's TWINKIES, fer gosh's sake, with less added sugar and fat. Even most of those healthy-sounding, name-brand, fancy-labeled, "Premium", supermarket breads are just White Bread laced with some nuts or fruit. 

How can they call it Whole Wheat bread, or 12-Grain bread, or Oatmeal bread, or NutsToYou bread if it's actually White Bread? Easy: they can call it almost anything they want, especially if it contains a pinch of whatever it's named after. But they're too smart to call it Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate bread. Ignore the name of the product. It was penned by PR types, not nutritionists. Read the bold nutritional label and the faint, small-print list of ingredients. It may be a whole grain product if the nutritional label shows about 3 grams of fiber per 40 mg of product AND the first ingredient is whole grain. Not enriched flour, not wheat flour, not bleached flour; Whole Grain. Finding whole grain products is fairly easy with cereals, much tougher with breads, and even tougher with pastas. Whole grain pasta is found primarily at health food stores, such as Wild Oats, which may offer dozens of kinds of delicious whole grains. Even most rice is White Bread; the only whole-grain rice is brown rice. Not the color brown; the ingredient "brown rice".

Cereal brands and names also tell us little about their nutrition or taste. Only their nutrition label, list of ingredients, taste and crunch matter.

Many people don't like cereal because they insist on eating the cardboard-like varieties with nothing on them but skim milk (Could that be White Milk?). Unless one has a health problem demanding such self-deprivation, or actually likes it that way, that's overkill. Healthy food doesn't have to taste healthy, and should at least taste better than the box. A pile of fruit, slushy-cold milk, a handful of walnuts or pecans and/or Grape Nuts, and some sugar will boost any cereal's taste, crunch and nutrition. I often freeze my box of cereal for greater gustatory sensation.

By now you must have several unanswered questions. What are whole grains? Just what is White Bread? Why should we avoid it? How do we avoid it, and what do we eat? How do we find, select and/or prepare whole grain foods? Isn't bread fattening? And what's whole grain ice cream?

A whole grain is a grass seed; it will sprout under the right conditions. It consists of a germ or embryo (analogous to an egg yoke), surrounded by the endosperm which feeds the new sprout (like the egg white), then encased by a bran layer (the shell). Each contributes valuable nutrients to the whole grain, which has helped sustain homo sapiens for millennia.

The small central germ contains proteins, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals; the outer bran layer adds fiber to its own special mix of vitamins and minerals. These -- especially the fiber -- are the valuable contributions whole grains make to our diets. The endosperm (most of the grain) is just starchy carbohydrates -- pure calories, little more than mere sugar.

Can you guess which whole grain part American industry usually uses to manufacture (realize this stuff is manufactured, not natural) our bread, cereal, pasta, pastries, wheat crackers, white rice, cornbread, chips, cookies, HoHos, cake, pancakes, tortillas, bagels (oops, the U.S. isn't the only offender)?

That's right. White Bread, which generally includes that entire list, is made from the endosperm. It's just starch. No fiber, virtually no vitamins or minerals, just empty calories, one step away from sugar. In fact, it begins to turn to sugar even before we swallow it; ever notice that bread gets sweeter the longer we chew it?

Nature knows we need fiber with our sugar or starch, so she always combines fiber with them. But food manufacturers, at least in the U.S., usually strip the fiber and most other nutrients from grain. The government makes the them put certain vitamins and minerals back in certain stripped grain products, but it's still near-junk food because our bodies see White Bread as sugar plus a wimpy vitamin pill.

This dietary emphasis on highly processed (stripped) foods causes millions of cases of constipation, hemorrhoids, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and heart disease. It makes countless individual lives shorter and miserable even while modern medicine extends longevity statistics with chemicals and surgery. Isn't it better, though, to prevent those miseries by eating wonderful foods than to fight them with time and money, and often lose?

Got it? As part of ordinary U.S. diets, one big meal of White Bread can constipate us, a steady diet of it can shorten lives, and the vast majority of U.S. bread, cereal, rice and pasta is White Bread. Reduce its part in your diet, especially if you have any of the problems it contributes to, by leaving it on the shelf.

On the other hand, whole grain products -- the antitheses of White Bread -- are among the healthiest and least "fattening" foods around. They nurture us well and fill us quickly in proportion to their calorie content. Many studies have shown that eight daily slices of whole grain bread, with no other dietary constraints, improved nutrition while helping subjects lose weight. People full of whole grain bread just don't want two Big Macs or a box of Oreos.

Of the 30-40 varieties of breads we see in big supermarkets, we might find a couple of whole grain breads. They are much more readily available at bakeries that grind their own whole grains in-house just before baking them, because uncooked wheat germ spoils in hours once it is cracked. These bakeries can bake a wide variety of whole grain breads, from pumpkin raisin spice to cherry walnut to cinnamon pecan, and sell them to us hot out of the oven. Talk about guilt-free desserts or main courses!

If you can't find such a bakery in your town, many inexpensive bread machines can now stir the stiffer whole grain dough. Start your own private bakery.

There are countless cookbooks for whole grains and whole-grain breads. A good bread book is "Bread Machine Baking for Better Health" by Keane and Chace, published by Prima Publishing, www.primahealth.com. It explains much more than I've had room for here, and addresses special food preferences and requirements. "The Whole Grains Cookbook" by Rich and Mirkin, 1.800.992.6053, provides recipes for many types of dishes made from over 25 of the 10,000 grains.

The whole grain ice cream was fictitious. I've seen chile pepper and jalapeno ice cream syrups, but never whole wheat ice cream. Yet.

What'd you expect ... humor? This is bread we're talking about, not beans.

Just wait!



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