There’s more to whole grains than a side dish of brown rice. Whole grains run the gamut from the common to the exotic and include everything from brown rice, buckwheat, millet, oats, popcorn, rye, whole-wheat couscous, and wild rice to amaranth, bulgur, farro, hominy, and quinoa. Nutritionally complex yet easy to prepare, these nutrient-packed gems offer variety to meals—at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
It doesn’t matter whether they come in a cracked, crushed, or flaked version; grains are considered “whole” as long as they contain the same balance of parts as the original whole kernel. If anything is removed, a grain can no longer be considered whole. For example, to make shelf-stable white flour and quick-cooking white rice, grains are processed to remove the protective bran layer and the oil-rich germ. After this processing, a grain has lost its “whole” status, along with a whopping 50-to-90 percent of its nutrients and phytochemicals.
Always try to buy organic grains to avoid consuming any pesticide residues. Organic grains also contain higher nutritional value than conventionally grown grains.
Whole and Healthy
There are three edible parts of the grain: the bran, endosperm, and germ. All three contain essential nutrients. The bran is rich in fiber, B vitamins, and trace minerals. The germ, which lies right below the bran, is the life source of the grain. Benefits include vitamins B and E, phytochemicals, essential fatty acids, trace minerals, and unsaturated lipids. Supplying food to the growing plant, the endosperm doesn’t offer us much in the way of vitamins and minerals, but its simple carbohydrates give us quick energy.
Eating the whole grain rather than its refined counterpart is important for several reasons. Researchers believe that consuming the entire grain is crucial to disease prevention. Studies show that those who consume at least three servings daily can reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, obesity, and stroke.
Another health benefit of whole grains is that they’re absorbed more slowly than their processed versions. This slower absorption helps prevent sugar and insulin spikes. One recent study shows that a high intake of whole grains can also lower glucose and insulin responses in those with Type 2 diabetes or who are overweight. Eating whole grains also provides a feeling of fullness since they are rich in fiber, and thus can help with weight management.
At the Store and At Home
When shopping for whole grains, look for expiration dates on packaged products and buy those stamped with the latest date. Grains purchased in the U.S. are generally clean and don’t need rinsing before they’re cooked, unless the box or recipe instructs you to do so. If you purchase grains from a bulk bin and they look a bit dusty, go ahead and rinse them, then drain them well.
Whole grains should be stored in a cool environment to prevent them from becoming rancid. Generally speaking, it’s best to refrigerate whole-grain flours for up to six months or keep them in the freezer for up to a year. Whole grains like barley, brown rice, millet, oats, and quinoa will stay fresh for several months in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
It’s an unfortunate misconception that whole grains take a long time to cook. While it’s true that brown rice can take upwards of 45 minutes, other grains like buckwheat, millet, and quinoa cook up in just 15 minutes to a half hour. That’s not long to wait for a nourishing, filling side dish or meal.
When cooking whole grains, use a heavy-bottomed pot or pan with a tight-fitting lid. Follow package or recipe directions, using exactly the amount of water suggested, and cook for the designated time. Never drain the water, as you’ll rinse valuable nutrients away. If some of the liquid remains, allow the grains to cook an additional 5 minutes. If the grains aren’t quite done but the liquid has been absorbed, add 1/4 cup more liquid and cook for 5 more minutes.
To infuse whole grains with even more flavor, replace cooking water with vegetable or meat broths. Apple juice, orange juice, or other fruit juice blends will add a touch of sweetness. For a savory dish, consider cooking grains in clam juice or tomato juice. Root vegetables are a natural accompaniment to the rustic flavor and texture of whole grains. Include carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, and others in whole-grain dishes.
Incorporating more whole grains in your diet is not difficult if you add them to your favorite dishes. Consider tossing 1/2 cup precooked bulgur wheat, wild rice, or hulled barley to a traditional stuffing. The same amount of brown rice, rye berries, or wild rice will fill out soups nicely.