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Eating Smart

Whole-Grain Foods Supply Important Fiber and Minerals

February 12, 2001|SHELDON MARGEN and DALE A. OGAR

No matter which food pyramid you try to follow--USDA, Mediterranean, Asian, Latin American or vegetarian--one thing remains the same: At the base of each are the foods that constitute the foundation of a healthful diet. In every case, these include whole-grain products (breads, cereals, pasta and rice) high in complex carbohydrates.

A great deal is known about the health benefits of complex carbohydrates, particularly whole grains. They're rich in soluble fiber, which has been shown to lower blood cholesterol. In regions of the world where unrefined whole grains make up a significant part of the diet, the incidence of colon cancer, diverticulosis and hemorrhoids is low. Grains also contain large amounts of important B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, zinc, calcium, selenium and magnesium.

Whole grains have not been processed, or milled, to remove the outer layer, called the bran, which contains most of the fiber, vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, we tend to purchase grains only after they've been made into recognizable products, such as bread, cereal and pasta. Cooks often overlook the whole grains themselves.

Here's a brief explanation of the most common whole grains:

* Amaranth: This South American grain is high in protein, iron and calcium. A cooked cupful contains almost 12 milligrams of iron (the better part of the recommended daily allowance for both men and women). The whole kernel is often "polished" and can be made into a side dish or cereal. The flour is used to make bread, tortillas, cookies and cereal.

* Barley: This grain is found as whole kernels, or "pearls" (polished). Barley is good in soups and stews, and with the right seasonings makes tasty side dishes, cereal and even puddings. A cup (cooked) contains only 1 gram of fat but 8.2 grams of dietary fiber.

* Buckwheat: This isn't actually a grain, but a seed. Buckwheat is popular in the Middle East as a side dish called kasha. Buckwheat flour is often mixed with wheat to make bread or pancakes with a nutty taste. It is high in fiber (11.4 grams per cooked cup).

* Millet: Mostly used as animal feed in this country, millet is actually a good source of phosphorus and B vitamins. It can be made into a side dish or used as poultry stuffing and is economical because it swells up a great deal in water.

* Oats: This grain is most familiar as the quick-cooking, flattened or rolled oats, but the whole kernels (groats) may need to simmer for about an hour. Oats are quite versatile, which is why their possible cholesterol-lowering properties have been widely discussed. Oat flour is used in everything from meatloaf to pastry.

* Quinoa: It's pronounced "keen-wa" (the name means "the mother grain") and is native to South America. Quinoa is high in protein, calcium and iron. It makes good puddings, soups and stir-fries. The whole grains must be washed and strained before using. The flour can be mixed with other grains or used alone.

* Rice (brown): This is simply "unpolished" rice. It retains most of rice's nutrients and fiber and has a nutty flavor that is quite different from that of white rice. Brown rice also takes longer to cook, often up to an hour.

* Rice (white): Far less nutritious than brown rice, a cup of cooked white rice has almost no fiber; a cup of brown rice has 4.8 grams. In order to make up for its shortcomings, white rice is often enriched with iron and other nutrients.

* Rye: This grain is best known for the wonderful bread it produces, but cracked rye is also a very good cereal. Rolled rye grains can be added to meatloaf, casseroles and soups. Rye flour mixes well with wheat and oats to make interesting bread combinations. It is one of the grains with the most fiber (11.4 grams per cooked cup). It is low in gluten, which makes it useful for people with gluten allergies.

* Triticale: A hybrid made from wheat and rye can be found whole, cracked or as flour. It also is low in gluten and works best when combined with wheat to make bread. It has somewhat less fiber than rye (9.9 grams per cooked cup).

* Whole wheat: This is our most popular grain, but many of us have never seen it in any form except flour. It also comes as whole berries or cracked. The whole berries must be cooked for two to three hours, but cracked wheat only takes about 15 minutes. Either is good for cereals, soups and casseroles. Bulgur wheat, which is the hulled, parboiled wheat berry, can be used much like rice. It is especially good in dishes like tabbouleh (a cold salad made from bulgur chopped tomatoes, mint and parsley); couscous (cracked wheat berries with meat, vegetables and sometimes fruit); and various pilaf dishes.

Because whole grains are low in fat and high in other nutrients, they are worth a bit of experimentation. Check out some vegetarian cookbooks to get a few recipes, and then experiment by using them as meat substitutes in various dishes.

One word of caution: Whole grains should be refrigerated, because the natural oils in the bran and germ of the grain will spoil quickly, especially in warm climates. In fact, one of the reasons grains are refined in the first place is to remove these oils and increase shelf life. This is also why whole grains may cost more and are not carried in every market. But it's worth a trip to a place that carries them.


Dr. Sheldon Margen is a professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. Send questions to Dale Ogar, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-7360, or e-mail to Eating Smart appears the second and fourth Mondays of the month.

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