Wholegrains! You hear the term all the time but do you know what they are? And why are they so important to our health?
The term ‘wholegrains’ refers to grains that have had only the husk removed but the grain itself remains intact. It includes brown rice, oats, quinoa, spelt, buckwheat, millet, corn and products made from them – wholemeal bread, whole wheat pasta and some breakfast cereals.
All whole grains have three parts:
- Bran - the tougher outer layer. It contains fibre, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, B vitamins and antioxidants.
- Endosperm - the bulky middle layer. It contains mostly starchy carbohydrates and small amounts of B vitamins.
- Germ – the inner layer. It contains E and B group vitamins, minerals, protein, small amounts of fat, beneficial phytochemicals and antioxidants.
Refined grains have had the bran and germ removed so only the starchy endosperm remains – the layer that contains the least nutrients. They are then finely ground into white flour, which means your body digests them super-fast because the small particles are absorbed quickly and turn into sugar.
In contrast, whole grains, and products made from them, contain fibre and protein which slow down the absorption of carbohydrates, ensuring a slow and gradual release of energy. They also supply essential vitamins and minerals and health-protective phytonutrients. This wholesome nutrient bundle is the reason why wholegrains are always listed among vital food groups.
Some refined grain products have had a few vitamins and minerals added back into the flour. This kind of flour is referred to as enriched or fortified flour. It helps a little but wholegrain products are still better for you.
Wholegrains provide healthy energy, nourish our bodies and are cheap staples but that’s not all. They also have a number of health benefits.
Making wholegrains your daily go-to option helps to lower your blood fats, including cholesterol. As a result, if you eat two or three servings of wholegrains a day, it may reduce your risk of heart disease by 20 per cent and heart attack by 30 per cent!
Other research shows that replacing refined grains with wholegrains - and eating at least two servings of wholegrains daily - may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 20-30 per cent. Wholegrains prevent blood sugar highs and lows by maintaining steadier levels.
Wholegrains are also an excellent source of fibre and antioxidants and these protect your digestive system. Regular consumption of wholegrains may reduce your risk of colon cancer by 21 per cent. This may be partly because they provide sustenance for the good bacteria in your gut that help to keep it healthy and but also release some beneficial compounds.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, wholegrains can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Their fibre content makes you feel fuller for longer and you don’t eat as much as you would with refined grains.
Some wholegrains are available in most shops – oats, wholegrain breakfast cereals (watch for added sugars and syrups), wholemeal bread, rye wholegrain bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, couscous and noodles, rye crackers, oat cakes. If you usually buy white bread, pasta and rice, these are easy swaps!
Beware of products that only pretend to be wholegrain – if whole grain isn’t first or second in the list of ingredients, the product isn’t truly wholegrain. This is particularly true with some brown breads that are often dyed to be of darker colour and are not truly wholegrain.
When it comes to ready meals and restaurants, it can be tricky but times are changing fast. Most shops now offer wholemeal sandwiches and baguettes, and falafel shops usually have wholemeal pitta bread too. Finding brown rice or wholemeal pasta on a night out might not be easy but keep an eye out for options!
In addition to mainstream wholegrains, there are slightly less common ones and these may come with a higher price tag.
Quinoa is one – very nutritious with slightly more protein than other wholegrains but its price is prohibitive for many. The solution? Mix it with rice – that way, you’ll have a healthier meal but not as expensive as if you’d used quinoa alone.
Millet and buckwheat are well-known, gluten-free grains but many of us are a bit unsure of how to cook them. Start by incorporating them into dishes you already know – porridge, risotto, or baked goods - or mix flour made from them with whole wheat flour to make healthier cakes and pancakes. Buckwheat should be the main ingredient in soba noodles but do check the ingredients – some brands contain only a tiny bit.
Spelt and kamut are both ancient varieties of wheat and contain higher amounts of most nutrient and less starch than ‘normal’ wheat. They take longer to cook but make for a flavourful addition to your meals. Flour made from them is ideal for bread-making and you can often find spelt bread at farmer’s markets.
Red, black and wild rice are varieties that contain high amounts of antioxidants. They are all more expensive than brown rice, so it’s a good idea to mix them with it – it’s cheaper, more nutritious and will make your meal look great, too!
Finally, bulgur wheat - boiled, dried and cracked wheat grains that retain all three parts of the grain. Bulgur wheat is not just great for making tabbouleh but can also be made into a version of porridge, with fresh and dried fruit.
There are countless types of wholegrains and they are all good for you! If you’re not used to having them, try swapping one thing at a time – for example, white bread for wholemeal. Give it three weeks and that should do the trick – that’s how long it takes to develop a new habit. If you already love wholegrains, don’t be afraid to experiment; bake with different flours, add wholegrains in salads, soups or even traybakes. You’ll be rewarded by rich flavours and better health!