Authored by Rachel Bowers, UMN Public Health and Nutrition
Minneapolis was built by grain. Once known as the “Flour Milling Capital of the World” the mills around St. Anthony Falls produced enough flour to bake 12 million loaves of bread a day. The Washburn A mill, which now houses the Mill City Museum, and the Pillsbury A mill shared the distinction as the largest mills in the world during the industry’s heyday. Though the mills have closed, grains continue to be a staple in our diet. Knowing a little science can help you make healthful choices.
A grain is the seed of a plant, be it wheat, corn or oat. The seed has three parts, the germ, the endosperm and the bran. The germ is the embryo- the beginning of the plant. The endosperm surrounds the germ, and provides some nutrition to the infant plant. The bran is the protective coating around the endosperm and germ. During processing, the germ and bran is stripped away, which also gets rid of most of the protein and fiber contained in the grain. The starchy endosperm remains. Leaving the whole grain in a food boosts the fiber, protein and vitamin and mineral content.
Let’s get a little familiar with each other for a moment, and talk about digestion. Carbohydrates are mostly digested in the small intestine. Starch, from the endosperm, is absorbed and transported to the liver, where it is turned into energy, and either used, or stored as fat. Energy in this form has been an important part of the human’s diet for thousands of years.
Whole grains also have fiber, an indigestible form of carbohydrate. This “roughage” goes through the small intestine undigested to the large intestine, where it adds weight to fecal matter. Fiber’s benefits go beyond its ability to “keep things moving.” Eating whole grains can help you reach a full feeling faster, and stay that way for longer because of the bulk in your stomach. This can be part of an overall strategy for weight loss or maintenance. Diets high in fiber may be protective against heart disease and Type II diabetes, when part of a healthy lifestyle.
Finding whole grain products can sometimes be tricky. Turn the package over and read the ingredients label. Look for the words “whole wheat” among the first few ingredients. Also, look on the Nutrition Facts label, which lists the fiber content. Choose products with at least 3 grams per serving.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating around six servings of grains a day, and that at least half of those should come from whole grain sources. Keep in mind that one slice of bread, or one cup of cereal counts as one serving.
There are many foods in the market with whole grains to choose from. You probably eat a number of grain products everyday anyway- try switching some to whole grains. For example, whole-wheat bread, brown rice, whole-wheat tortillas, or pasta can all be substituted for refined grain products. For breakfast, try granola with milk or low-fat yogurt. Search your cookbooks or the internet for salad recipes that use grains such as barley, quinoa, bulgur or rice. These salads are tasty, and travel well to a pot-luck. Look for ways to substitute whole grains for refined flour, or try a new grain, and you’ll be well on your way to three servings per day.