Anyone who has lived on this planet can tell you that seeking nutrition information can be mind-boggling, contradictory and pretty much make you throw up your hands and forget the whole thing.
I’ve lately been thinking about grains. Morning porridge grains in particular but also flours, rice, barley, groats, wheatberries, quinoa, couscous, bulgur… So I’ve done a little research. We’ve also had the privilege of growing many-a-grain around here – rye, wheat, rice, and though technically not a grain, buckwheat galore as a green manure cover crop. Organic grains in my book can look a whole lot like a field of lovely grains mixed with a great diversity of weeds. But that is a story for another day.
Near as I can tell there are five factors to consider when choosing your grains:
• fibre content (whether the bran is left in),
• acidity (related to gluten content),
• glycemic index (how much it is processed and how quickly the sugars move into the bloodstream),
• protein content (whether the germ is left in)
• usable nutrients (are the nutrients added/enriched or naturally occurring?).
First a little bit about processing grains for consumption. The way I see it, the more a grain is processed, the more it seems to be readily available as sugar to the blood stream. The more simple (or broken down, or pre-digested, or processed) a grain or carbohydrate is, the more quickly it brings energy to the body. But these quick sugars lead to the release of an insulin roller coaster and a subsequent crash and hunger and the cycle starts all over again. Along the gradient I see white sugar at one end (smooth, sweet, finely textured) and a complete, intact whole grain (crunchy, nutty-flavoured) on the other.
An intact grain is made up of an endosperm, a germ and a bran – and often a hull as well but that is generally removed before it hits the market. The germ contains the protein and most of the nutrients while the bran houses most of the fibre. When white flour is made the germ and the bran are taken out. Often whole wheat flours have the germ and bran removed and then the bran is put back. The trouble with the germ is that it doesn’t keep so well. Hence, a more nutritious, higher quality flour won’t keep on the shelf as well as its more processed cousin. If it is nutrition you are after, then buy the truly whole grain products (that include the germ and the bran) in small quantities and keep them in the fridge or freezer.
You’ve heard me go on about processed cereals before. The part about the rats doing better on cardboard than some brands of cereal. The issue is simple. Many boxed cereals are without the germ (protein component) and sometimes don’t contain the bran either (fibre). Usually there is also an added amount of sugar nobody wants to hear out about. So the food value is there. It likely digests really easily (read: high glycemic index, therefore quick to raise blood sugar), lots of calories, little contribution to long-term energy and probably very efficient at fat storage. My personal vice is Cheerios. I include them in my diet knowing full well what they are - and balance them with better choices for the rest of my meals.
A quick aside to two ‘grains’ that I want to eat more of. We make crepes around here with buckwheat flour. Buckwheat is made from the small seed (groat) of a white flowering plant. It is an excellent choice for folks with gluten intolerance. It is also long-lasting as an energy source and more alkaline than acidic. Apparently our bodies are supposed to run on alkaline foods and we are all running around addicted to heartburn medication due to the high acidity in our bodies.
Barley is seemingly another wonder food – also more alkaline. It is often prepared as pearl barley which has had the germ removed and is an excellent source of energy, reasonably long lasting.
I’m an oatmeal fan. I eat it almost every morning for breakfast (as do my children). For a treat we will have Cream of Wheat. We put a wee pat of butter and brown sugar or maple syrup on there – maybe some berries. Its my lifelong love. But it doesn’t contain the same amount of fibre and protein that other hot cereals do. And I’m hoping to make a shift. Cream of wheat is like baby food. And I love it. Who wouldn’t? But it’s time to face the fact that its a highly processed version of a whole grain.
The difference between the oat cereals out there? Here is where I was getting deeply confused.
Oats of any kind are usually roasted to remove an enzyme that makes them go rancid quicker.
Steel cut oats are the whole oat groats chopped into pieces. They take longer to cook and have the best nutritional benefits in the way of proteins, healthy fats and fibre (also release their sugars more slowly into the bloodstream). The problem with all oats is they tend towards being an acidic grain. Kamut and spelt are considered far less acidic than oats and wheat, for example. From one whole grain to the next, the protein content in the germ seems to be about the same between whole grain wheat, kamut, barley, oats, rye and spelt.
Rolled oats are the result of steaming the groats and then rolling them out into flakes. Quick oats are large-flake rolled oats cut into smaller pieces. Old-fashioned and large-flake oats take longer to cook than quick oats. Instant oatmeal are quick oats cut into smaller pieces yet. The smaller the pieces, the easier for your body to take up the sugars, the quicker the sugars spike in your bloodstream, the faster you crash and get hungry again. Instant oats are fine but are often sold in small packets with added sugars, salt and chemicals.
Oat bran is simply the isolated bran from the whole oat grain and are very high in fibre. High fibre foods such as these have been shown to lower LDL (bad cholesterol).
The more I learn about the food available to us, the more I realize that an egg is not an egg. That all milk is not the same. That one side of beef is not equal to another. That one large, beautiful orange carrot does not have the same nutrient value as the next one.
And now I know that the ‘usability’ (digestibility, acidity, glycemic index, nutrient density) from one grain to the next is highly variable. I don’t think we should throw away every ‘wrong’ food in our cupboards but I truly believe that when we’re standing in the grocery store aisle scratching our heads we need to consider the following:
1. What do we like because that is likely what we are going to eat. Thinking you should be a Quinoa fan does not automatically make you a Quinoa fan. (I tried a Quinoa prune thing recently and nearly gagged – perhaps one day my taste buds will be so refined).
2. Eat your Cheerios. Love your Cheerios. Buy the squishy cheap, airy ‘whole wheat’ breads, just know what they offer and fill in the gaps.
3. When in doubt, head for the germ. ‘Whole wheat’ is not necessarily germ and bran-containing. Read about the products you buy and find out if the germ and bran are still in there. Best way to tell? Does it keep in your cupboard for months or go rancid after a few weeks? If it is the latter, you’ve got the right stuff (and need to clear a spot in your fridge or freezer for it).
All for now. Over and out.
Happy Grain Eating.